'The Supreme Court': PBS Does Justice to History

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Although the idea of spending four hours listening to professors and law clerks might not sound precisely irresistible, "The Supreme Court" -- a two-part history of "the most powerful judicial tribunal in the world" -- bravely upholds a PBS tradition. Namely, providing television for people who have a serious interest in the country and world around them.

The film is rarely as dry as one might fear, filled as it is with the stories of epochal cases -- Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade-- and illuminating details, such as the fact that President Dwight D. Eisenhower only appointed Earl Warren to the court because of a promise made at the 1952 Republican convention. Or that when the court handed down its decision on Marbury v. Madison in 1803, it lacked a home of its own and was forced to convene in a hotel lobby.

History is inherently dull stuff only to the determinedly uninformed, but obviously presentation counts, especially in television. Executive producer Jody Sheff keeps "Supreme Court" (airing in two two-hour segments) arrestingly visual. There are various historic photographs, well-shot and edited close-up interviews with authoritative figures -- including current Chief Justice John Roberts, who proves a highly telegenic communicator. And there are printed or written words from key decisions that are pulled from documents, magnified and swept across the screen -- a case in which taking words out of context, literally, is helpful.

One of several professors popping up to comment is the appropriately named Anna O. Law (of DePaul University). Also commenting are former clerks of the stubborn William Rehnquist, the mysterious David Souter and the towering Hugo Black. Lucas A. Powe Jr., former clerk to legendary William O. Douglas, goes a tad over the top with his effusive recollections, but you have to admire his enthusiasm.

Former justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to be named to the court (a promise made and kept by President Ronald Reagan), is interviewed, and at one point she talks about her trepidation over how well she would perform her duties. "It's wonderful to be asked to be the first to do something," she says, "but I didn't want to be the last." Oddly, Ruth Bader Ginsburg barely gets a mention, but perhaps such is the fate of anybody who's the second to do anything.

In its earliest days of existence, the court met for only one six- to eight-week session per year, and the justices lived together in a boardinghouse. For tonight's two chapters, "One Nation Under Law" and "A New Kind of Justice," the filmmakers resort, briefly, to filmed reenactments (obviously because visual memorabilia of the court's first decades are hard to come by). The reenactments are harmless and without dialogue -- such events as the funeral of John Marshall in 1835, or Thomas Jefferson's inauguration in 1801.

Marshall is credited as the man who "invented" the Supreme Court largely as we know it today, although later chief justices would make it an increasingly assertive part of the national government. Many an illustrious personage is brought to life, as are pivotal cases and decisions, from Fletcher v. Peck in 1809 (involving a corrupt Georgia legislature and the principle of "protecting minorities from majorities," as the script puts it) to the landmark Brown in 1954.

That latter decision was supposed to strike down school segregation, but the practice continued for years. To Virginia's everlasting shame, the citizens and government of Prince Edward County closed down all public schools rather than see even one of them integrated. Although it took years to be fully implemented, the decision was "the second Emancipation Proclamation," says Vernon Jordan, former Georgia field director of the NAACP.

After the decision came down, Black took to wearing a bulletproof vest when returning to his home state of Alabama for visits, we learn, and finally stopped going home altogether when his son was the object of repeated death threats. What seems incredible now is how relatively recent all this was -- as if it were only yesterday when white punks, interviewed for network news, casually used a racial slur when talking about African American students.

Arguably even more explosive was the outcome of Roe v. Wade. Walter Cronkite re-materializes at his once-familiar perch on "The CBS Evening News" to report the decision to the viewing nation: "In a landmark ruling today . . . the Supreme Court legalized abortion," in effect declaring antiabortion laws in 46 states to be unconstitutional. Soon, the high court was a political football to be tossed around irresponsibly by presidential candidates -- among them, the infernally indefatigable Richard M. Nixon, who earned cheers by denouncing courts and court decisions that went "too far."

In a taped telephone conversation, we hear Nixon's first question about William Rehnquist when his name was dropped for a court vacancy: "Is he Jewish?" (Nixon, alas, was nothing if not consistent.)

"The Supreme Court," compellingly narrated by actor David Strathairn (who portrayed Edward Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck"), is, of course, more than the story of an institution and those who affected its direction. It's about the great struggle of the American experiment -- finding a balance between liberty and order, with justices such as Rehnquist championing order and others, like William O. Douglas, standing up for liberty and the rights of the individual.

Fittingly and not surprisingly, the documentary struggles to maintain a balance itself -- you can almost hear it being "lawyered" at PBS -- so as not to irritate the ever-irritable right-wing or to offend pious lefties. Time and again, presidents have tried to appoint justices to the court who would advance the chief executives' ideologies. And time and again, judges would surprise even the men who appointed them by being somehow elevated and ennobled once they took their seats on this most august of august bodies.

"Supreme Court" might not have a strong point of view itself, but it's bound to stir healthy debate among factions of every imaginable political stripe -- and that's a pretty good thing for a television program to do.

The Supreme Court (two hours) premieres tonight at 9 on WETA (Channel 26) and MPT (Channel 22); it concludes next Wednesday night at 9 on both PBS stations.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company