In a way it was like a reunion of two friends.
Journalist Carl T. Rowan and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall go back a long way, more than 30 years by Rowan's recollection. So it should come as no surprise that the best part of "Searching for Justice: Three American Stories" involves the two of them talking about justice, presidents Marshall has known and dealt with and his feelings about the Constitution.
In this season of TV celebrations of the Constitution's bicentennial, WUSA has come at the topic in a distinctive way. "Justice," airing tonight at 8 and again Friday at 11:30 p.m., re-examines three cases in which the Surpreme Court altered the lives of individuals in particular and American life in general through its interpretation of the Constitution.
In probing these old cases, Rowan uncovers some new material, talks to a number of principals involved in the cases and chats with Marshall.
The cases: Lockett v. Ohio, in which the Ohio death penalty was struck down in 1978; Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision giving women the right to abortion; and Sipuel v. the University of Oklahoma, in which the court in 1950 struck down the racial segregation of the university's graduate programs.
The Oklahoma case was brought in an effort to break down admission barriers to the Oklahoma Law School. The lawyer who pushed the case: An NAACP attorney named Thurgood Marshall, who had been denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School on the same grounds.
Along the way, there are some surprises, such as Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) revising her story of the pregnancy that lead to the abortion decision. But the camera always comes back to Marshall.
"What this show has is Thurgood Marshall talking with a candor you've never heard in 200 years from a sitting Supreme Court justice," said Rowan.
Rowan's earliest memory of his friendship with Marshall, he recalled recently, goes back to a visit he paid him in New York in the '50s. Marshall was cooking a beef stew, the recipe calling for a bit of bourbon.
"He put about a third of a bottle in and said, 'Damn, it's too thin,'" said Rowan. "So he added some flour, and then it was too thick. Then he thinned it with bourbon. By the time we finished dinner, the beef wasn't the only thing stewed."
In the program, Marshall's comments, observations and anecdotes are intriguing. The only problem is that many of them leave the viewer thirsty for elaboration. If Thurgood Marshall is ready to talk, an audience is ready to listen.
Marshall recalls, for instance, being hospitalized and receiving word that President Nixon had called his doctor and asked for a prognosis. "Send it," instructed Marshall, "but with this note at the bottom: Not yet."