WFYI (Channel 20), Jan. 31 and Feb. 7, 9-11 p.m.
John Roberts gets the last word in the PBS two-part series The Supreme Court: “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.”
You can decide whether the current chief justice’s words are a summation of the court’s history or a signal of intent. Either way, The Supreme Court is a fascinating four-hour examination of how the Supreme Court of the United States developed into an equal, powerful branch of the federal government.
Essentially, this is the story of America as told through court cases — the first important one being Marbury v. Madison (1807), in which Justice John Marshall wrote the decision that gave the Supreme Court the power of judicial review.
Marshall’s vision has been tested through the years, as the court wrestled with the issues of slavery, the growth of the industrial economy, civil rights, abortion and more. Its decisions have been wretched at times (from the 1857 Dred Scott ruling, which said “blacks had no rights a white man was bound to respect,” to one that upheld forced sterilization of a woman labeled by the court as an “imbecile”) and forward-thinking at others (enforcing work rules and school desegregation, to name a couple).
Providing perspective are historians, professors and court observers, as well as Roberts and the first woman on the court, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Their descriptions and accounts of the court’s actions, as well as the pictures and video contained in this series, are informative and helpful. If you’re looking for a refresher course in history, a crash course or just a good documentary, here you go.