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Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! 'The Supreme Court' Is in Session on PBS

By Tamara Krinsky

Thomas Lennon (right ) directs a re-creation scene for 'The Supreme Court'.

I have always felt woefully ignorant of US history, mainly because I spent most of my time in high school classes nodding off, due to less-than-inspiring US history teachers. As I write this on Election Day, however, suddenly I'm wishing I'd paid a bit more time listening instead of napping. Luckily, PBS and WNET/Thirteen have come up with a solution. The Supreme Court, a four-part series about the history of the Supreme Court, premieres on PBS on January 31, 2007.

The idea for the series was born about five years ago when executive producer Jody Sheff was thinking about what had not yet been done in documentary. "There had been shows done about different pieces or cases or people of the Supreme Court, but not really a good overview, a real history, told in an interesting way," she says.

Mark Zwonitzer, series producer, chats with retired US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor following her interview for <em>The Supreme Court</em>. Photo (c) Don Perdue.

One of the biggest challenges was for Sheff and her production and development team to figure out how to infuse the potentially dry material with life and energy. First, the series needed to be visually engaging. Second, the team wanted to minimize the use of legalese. Most important, Sheff and her team decided to take a personal approach to the Court, telling its history through the life stories of key justices and revealing the behind-the-scenes power plays, passions, personal beliefs and back stories.

Once they had a strong concept for how the four hours would be structured, the next step was figuring out which Justices and what cases to include. "It's a challenge to see how we can squeeze hundreds of years of history into four hours," says series producer Mark Zwonitzer. "But the idea is that at least we can give people a full belly, a sense that they've seen a real piece of history as opposed to just a scattershot of greatest hits and cases."

Ultimately, content decisions were made based upon what aided most in telling the whole history of the Court. Zwonitzer says that they couldn't just do a one-off biography simply because there was a fascinating character, such as maverick Justice William O. Douglas. Instead, he and his team chose to profile Justice Hugo Black in the third episode, "By the Content of Their Character," because Black helped to better tell the continuous story of the Court from 1790 up to today.

From <em>The Supreme Court</em>.

Series director Thomas Lennon was intrigued by the creative problem of visually telling a story where the action takes place mainly behind closed doors. Though normally not a fan of historical re-creations, he knew he needed to incorporate them into the program. Says Lennon, "I set out to use the re-creations in a very different way, to make them abstract, schematic, choreographed, to create a representation of action rather than the action itself." Utilizing a jimmy jib and overhead shots, he never lets viewers see the faces of the actors, infusing them with a dreamy quality that allows the audience to bring their own imagination to the scene.

Neither Sheff, Zwonitzer or Lennon have legal backgrounds, and all were excited to have the chance to spend time with the scholars, historians and law professors interviewed in the series, including former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. "It was an opportunity to go to our own little law school for 18 months," Zwonitzer says.

One of the most surprising things Zwonitzer learned while producing the series was the newness of the concept of individual rights. Outside of economic rights, the Court had no interest in being involved in the protection of individual rights until after World War II. For Lennon, the biggest eye-opener was how ultimately subjective the big decisions are. Sheff was fascinated by the evolution of the Court's rise in importance.

Sheff feels a series like The Supreme Court is especially important in today's political climate because it puts what is currently happening in the country in perspective. "Once you've looked at it, you really get a sense of how elastic and how cyclical things are," she points out. "So many of the issues before the Court, like the right to privacy and state sovereignty, have been going on since the beginning, and that's part of the beauty of it. It takes a bit of the fear and the mystery out of it when you realize that there's historical precedent and a real sense of contextual history."

In addition to the four-hour PBS program, The Supreme Court will be supported by a national outreach effort. This includes a companion website on and a website for educators:; a four-DVD box set; and a companion book written by journalist Jeffrey Rosen, professor of law at George Washington University Law School.


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.