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At the rare times the Supreme Court pops into the consciousness of the public, it is usually because of a vexing case or, more recently, a personnel change or two. Rarely is there a chance to step back and look at the Court’s history or its evolving role in the life of the nation. PBS makes a vitally important effort to do just that in a four-part documentary, “The Supreme Court,” which begins airing this week (check your local listings for details). It is a must-see series that takes the viewer back to the pitifully weak early days of the Court, then all the way forward to its current incarnation as a center-of-the-universe powerhouse. It perfectly tees up the current air of anticipation over just how conservative the new Roberts Court is — or will be, with another vacancy or two. The challenge in a series like this is to make the Supreme Court visual — a difficult task not just for its long-ago past, but its contemporary history as well, as cameras are not allowed in the courtroom. In the main, director Thomas Lennon rises to the task, with a mix of historical re-enactors, period paintings, newsreel footage, and photos. And then there are the talking heads: enthusiastic historians, law professors, and others, including a couple of judges named John Roberts Jr. and Sandra Day O’Connor. To varying degrees, they all seem overjoyed at the ability to tell the Court’s story outside a classroom or courtroom, and they tell it well and succinctly. Sometimes there are too many of them, however. It’s amusing to hear Roberts describe his long-ago predecessor John Marshall as a convivial guy who liked to ply his colleagues with Madeira wine. But do we really need a parade of other academics making the same point? It’s a small quibble, but it also points up how personality-focused the series is. The Court is supposed to be about the cases and the law, everyone says, but the series successfully makes the argument that personalities — who was on the Court and when — have made all the difference in the world. (The point is fortified by Jeffrey Rosen’s companion book to the series, The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America.) In the documentary we are treated to fascinating profiles of Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hugo Black, and William Rehnquist, among others. It’s riveting to hear excerpts from Black’s 1937 radio speech explaining his past membership in the Ku Klux Klan — one of the most listened-to events in radio history. And it’s priceless to see Black, near the end of his life, defiantly telling a television interviewer that the Bill of Rights was intended to make it harder for police and prosecutors to catch and convict criminals. Interestingly, in its final episode the series attributes the Court’s most recent transformation to Rehnquist, who, in spite of his professed judicial modesty, presided over an increasingly assertive Court. Exhibit A is the Court’s 2000 ruling in Bush v. Gore, in which the majority elbowed aside the Florida Supreme Court in the interest of ending the uncertainty over the outcome of the presidential election. “It is not a legal logic, it’s a political logic,” says Southern Methodist University political scientist Joseph Kobylka, whose easy, accessible descriptions of Court history make him a star of the series. It is remarkable to see how, six-plus years on, the settled narrative about Bush v. Gore is that it represents a quick-strike, necessary detour into politics that has had no lasting impact on the Court’s stature. The Supreme Court is made of marble, but in this fine series, it wears a patina of Teflon.
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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