TV Preview: Hank Stuever on C-SPAN's Supreme Court Documentary

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009

There are people in Washington (and beyond) whose fascination with the Supreme Court is like a mild case of Beatlemania. They comb through the court's opinions with gusto; they know where certain justices like to eat lunch out; they've read the heaps of books that all promise some clearer insight into the personalities and minds that form the clandestine nine.

They also probably know it's Supreme Court Week on C-SPAN (not to be confused with Shark Week!), timed to the court's reconvening Monday and beginning with an unprecedented and surprisingly moving documentary Sunday night.

"The Supreme Court: Home to America's Highest Court" is the third in a series from C-SPAN executive producer Mark Farkas, whose previous projects included inside looks at the far more tourist-trod White House and Capitol. Even Supreme fanatics will learn something new here about justices' chambers and the busts, interior artwork and exterior features of the 1935 court building.

Most interesting, this marks the first time that all the current and retired justices (including Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter and newcomer Sonia Sotomayor) have given individual interviews on camera for the same film. If nothing else, it's rare to see some of them move and speak up close. (Longer individual interviews will be aired later in the week, and full transcripts, natch, will go up on C-SPAN's Web site.)

That the justices say almost nothing revealing and stick squarely to their respect and reverence for the job is fine with me, as is the fact that you'd have to go to a funeral home to find a more hushed edifice. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg most giddily shows off the hallowed halls. There is discussion of pecking order and chamber offices that face street protesters and offices that don't. There is the never-before-filmed robing room, where one treats one's colleagues with utmost kindness and respect, even when "you may be temporarily miffed because you received a spicy dissenting opinion," she says.

There's less spice in the dining room, where the justices take lunch on days when they're hearing a case. (O'Connor insisted they have some togetherness time, free of debate.) "The food is not exactly haute cuisine," Ginsburg notes, since it's delivered from a cafeteria, but it's just fine.

In the still more off-limits rooms where the justices meet to consider and then render opinions, we learn how Chief Justice John Roberts assigns writing duties, and we hear Justice Antonin Scalia's thoughts on whether arguments from attorneys ever really influence his opinion ("It's probably quite rare, although not unheard of," he says) and, from Justice John Paul Stevens, we learn that in the afternoon, coffee is delivered with "a sweet roll or a cookie or something."

Bland and thrilling, all at once. Just another day from on high.

The Supreme Court: Home to America's Highest Court (90 minutes) airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on C-SPAN.

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