Town Hall


The Supreme Court


Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. And Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor Give In-Depth Interviews; Actor David Strathairn Narrates

New York Life Insurance Company Is Sole Corporate Sponsor Of Four-Part Series

It's known as the court of last resort - the Supreme Court - where nine judges appointed for life make monumental decisions that govern our everyday lives, from the contents of the nation's daily newspapers to what we can do in the privacy of our own homes. With immense power and considerable mystery, the court of final appeal has helped author the history of America. But even though it is one of the pillars of American democracy - the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution - no television series has ever fully profiled the inner workings of the court. Until now.

THE SUPREME COURT, produced by Thirteen/WNET New York, premieres Wednesday, January 31 and Wednesday, February 7, 2007 at 9 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings). Sole corporate sponsor is New York Life Insurance Company. Funding is also provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Actor David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) narrates.

By fusing history with biography, THE SUPREME COURT humanizes the enigmatic black-robed figures, revealing their temperaments, passions, deeply held personal beliefs, and life stories. The series also explores the dramatic stories of the people whose cases have come before the court, as well as the often controversial rulings that impact all Americans.

With President George Bush's recent appointments of John G. Roberts Jr. to chief justice of the United States, replacing the late William Rehnquist, and Samuel Alito as associate justice to replace the retired Sandra Day O'Connor, the Supreme Court has been in the spotlight, underscoring the importance of exploring the history, place and power of this fundamental American institution. The series does this by elucidating the shifting yet delicate balance between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government. Numerous accounts highlight the complex and explosive collisions between the court and the presidency. Portraits of many key figures - presidents, justices, attorneys, plaintiffs, and defendants - illustrate how all Americans, both the powerful and the penniless, have been able to have their day in court, days that have sometimes resulted in lasting changes to our culture and society.

Established by a brief paragraph in the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court convened for the first time in 1790. Then, as now, there were no specific qualifications to become a justice, not even U.S. citizenship or prior legal experience. In its entire history, only 110 individuals have served on the U.S. Supreme Court, including just two African Americans and two women. Theirs is a select group over which voters have no sway.

"I think justices, myself and others, should view ourselves as trustees of an extremely valuable institution that has built up over the centuries and has served the country very well in ensuring the rule of law and has the ability to reach unpopular decisions that will nonetheless be followed," says Roberts, who began his second term as chief justice October 2, when the court reconvened.

The series charts the court's unique evolution, using archival footage and innovative graphic techniques to help audiences grasp complex legal concepts. Interviews with some of the greatest legal minds in the country as well as exclusive access to the court help personalize the justices while providing context to key decisions and hot-button issues of the day.

The series includes a frank interview with retired Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who recalls the challenge of being the first woman appointed to the court. "I didn't know if I had the experience that would enable me to do a good job on the court," says O'Connor in THE SUPREME COURT. "It's wonderful to be the first to be asked to do something, but I didn't want to be the last. And for me to take that job and not perform it well enough could have been a disaster for women."

THE SUPREME COURT is divided into four, one-hour programs:

Program One - One Nation Under Law - examines the creation of the court and follows it through the brink of the Civil War, paying particular attention to the fourth chief justice of the Supreme Court - John Marshall - and to his successor, Roger Taney. Marshall presided over one of the most famous cases before the court while Taney presided over one of the most infamous. In Marbury v. Madison (1803), Marshall found in an obscure case involving an unsigned judicial appointment the opportunity to assert the court's most important power: the right of judicial review. In Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), however, Taney, the next chief justice, exercised that same power against the national government - to protect slavery. "It was a disaster," says James Simon, law professor, dean emeritus, New York Law School. "It was the worst opinion ever written in the history of the Supreme Court of the United States."

Program Two - A New Kind of Justice - explores the issues before the court during the period after the Civil War, a time of unprecedented economic growth, when industrialists like Carnegie and Rockefeller were earning millions. As corporations became more powerful they found an unlikely ally in the Supreme Court. While the 14th Amendment was passed to make certain that the states were obligated to recognize the rights of the newly freed slaves, the court would for almost 100 years use the amendment to protect not blacks but big business, recognizing corporations as "persons" and awarding them sweeping legal protection.

Program Three - A Nation of Liberties - focuses on the court's reaction to state and federal legislation on Bill of Rights freedoms, with special attention to the explosion of civil rights cases from the early 1940s to the present. This program highlights the Warren Court as it confronts the issues of race, gender and religion. "This is a watershed time in the court's history," says Joan Biskupic, journalist and author, in THE SUPREME COURT. "You have World War II. You have McCarthyism. You have the Cold War. You have the civil rights struggles. There's tension between national security, national identity, free speech, individual rights. And it falls into the lap of these nine justices to sort it all out."

Program Four - The Rehnquist Revolution - details the extraordinary opportunity exploited by President Richard Nixon: to name four of the court's nine judges, effectively wiping out almost half of the Warren court. The last hour of the series also investigates how the court, especially under the leadership of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, rose in importance to become the institution most responsible for resolving the central questions of American life. The program also addresses the right to privacy, a key component in 1973's Roe v. Wade. "How in the world did such a conservative justice [Harry Blackmun] write this incredibly activist, liberal opinion in Roe?" asks Michael Klarman, James Monroe distinguished professor of law and professor of history, University of Virginia, in THE SUPREME COURT. "Well, if you go back and read the opinion it doesn't read as some sort of charter of feminist rights; it reads as a charter of doctors' rights."

THE SUPREME COURT will be supported by an ambitious national outreach effort, including a companion Web site on; a widely distributed discussion guide; a companion book published by Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, written by noted columnist and journalist Jeffrey Rosen, professor of law at George Washington University Law School; and a four-DVD box set released by Ambrose Video in time for broadcast.

The series' sole corporate sponsor is New York Life Insurance Company, which has also funded a comprehensive Web site for educators ( to encourage social studies teachers to emphasize the role of the court in shaping and reshaping American life. Additional funding for the series is provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Partial funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

THE SUPREME COURT is a HiddenHill Production for Thirteen/WNET New York. Series producer is Mark Zwonitzer; series director is Thomas Lennon; cinematographer is Michael Chin; composer is Brian Keane. Producers are Rob Rapley, Julia Elliott and Jamila Wignot. Executive producer is Jody Sheff. Executive-in-charge is William Grant.


Thirteen/WNET New York is one of the key program providers for public television, bringing such acclaimed series as Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, Charlie Rose, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, Wide Angle, Secrets of the Dead, NOW With David Brancaccio, and Cyberchase - as well as the work of Bill Moyers - to audiences nationwide. As the flagship public broadcaster in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut metro area, Thirteen reaches millions of viewers each week, airing the best of American public television along with its own local productions such as The Ethnic Heritage Specials, The Thirteen Walking Tours, New York Voices, and Reel New York. Thirteen extends the impact of its television productions through educational and community outreach projects - including the Celebration of Teaching and Learning - as well as Web sites and other digital media platforms. More information can be found at:

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