January 31, 2007

CRANK UP THE VCR:

'The Supreme Court': PBS Does Justice to History (Tom Shales, 1/31/07, Washington Post)

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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 31, 2007 9:18 AM
Comments

There is a problem with taking words wrom court opinions "out of context." The language used to explain a holding can take on a life of its own, and, in the minds of the public, and in the cynical manipulation of theh rulings by the interested, become a substitute for the ruling itself.

Buzz-words, such as "reasonable expectation of privacy," for example, have come to serve as a substitute for the 4th Amendment, by virtue of having been used once in a case almost a century ago.

Appellate language is not to be construed as statutes are construed. Holdings are not enactments. They are to by analyzed in terms of what about the ruling was necessary to the decision and to what extent, if any, the holding
differed from what had gone before. The words are not the same thing as the holding.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 3, 2007 5:00 PM
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