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Jewish World Review
Feb. 12, 2007
/ 24 Shevat, 5767
The no longer mysterious Supreme Court
Fred Friendly, Edward R. Murrow's longtime producer, used to remind me that television, at its beginning, was intended to educate as well as entertain. In the historic, unprecedented four-part PBS series "The Supreme Court," the tumultuous history and the most influential, clashing personalities of our "court of last resort" have been made available to the many Americans for whom the High Court seems very distant, though its rulings have affected millions of us for generations.
This illuminating, often dramatic series recently aired on PBS stations around the country, but you can still see it, because a DVD of the series can be purchased on www.pbs.org/supremecourt. And there is a companion book written in clear, narrative, nonacademic prose by constitutional expert Jeffrey Rosen, who's in the series "The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries that Defined America".
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At the end of the series, Chief Justice John Roberts, a participant in this landmark TV achievement, says: "The legitimacy and the acceptance of what the Court does depend upon how people view the institution. The Court is always vulnerable and has been throughout its history... (because it) has the ability to reach unpopular decisions that will nonetheless be followed."
But too few Americans school children and adults know of how the Supreme Court has continually been at the core of protecting our essential liberties and rights against fear-ridden majorities of citizens and Congress in times of national danger, as well as presidents who sweepingly ignore the separation of powers. The Supreme Court itself as this series demonstrates vividly has also rolled over the Constitution in times of crisis, as in its approval of the internment camps of Japanese-Americans during World War II. But this republic resiliently comes back to its roots of liberty, in part because of the Supreme Court redeeming its mistakes.
But as many surveys have shown as well as Jay Leno's impromptu quizzes of college students on the "Tonight Show" many Americans are educationally disadvantaged in their knowledge of this history of who we are and who those black-robed justices are who have the power to make decisions not only on national security, but also concerning, at times, intimate details of our personal lives.
How many of us know what in the life and temperament of Chief Justice John Marshall gave him the daring to find in a Congressional act setting up the federal court system the power of the Supreme Court, and other federal courts, to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional? The 1803 decision Marbury v. Madison changed the course of this country.
How many of us know anything about former slave owner Justice John Marshall Harlan, whose lonely dissents tried to awaken the Court that for years stopped the "equal protection of the laws" guarantee in the Fourteenth Amendment from applying to black Americans?
These and other "personalities and rivalries that defined America" are brought back to life in this invaluable TV series a true reality show that both entertains and educates.
This series also has a long-range component a national educational outreach campaign to reach community groups, libraries and of special importance, schools. Because of the No Child Left Behind Law, so much time is being spent on preparing students to pass reading and math tests that hardly any time is left for the already diminishing classes in what used to be called civics. We are not educating a new generation to become citizens actively informed in keeping us both safe and free.
Among the companions to this TV series is a wide-ranging Web site that will be live online for four years (www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt) that contains all the resources for educators.
The press reviews for the four-part "Supreme Court" TV series have been very favorable except for one. I feel sorry for New York Times readers who were put off from watching by a stunningly supercilious and ignorant review (Jan. 21) by Virginia Heffernan, who found it "boring."
The New York Times has superbly knowledgeable Supreme Court reporters Linda Greenhouse and Adam Liptak but chose to assign the review to a writer who is very badly educationally disadvantaged.
But none of the rest of us need be in that sad state thanks to Thirteen/WNET and PBS. There's more to television than Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnell.
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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.
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