The sitting Justices and various experts discuss the Supreme Court and its work.
For a documentary originally intended to focus on the gleaming marble temple designed by Cass Gilbert, the C-SPAN producers persuaded all the current Justices and the retired Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter—Souter later declined to have his remarks printed here—to sit for interviews. The Court’s unprecedented cooperation resulted in an invaluable piece of televised history about the least understood branch of the federal government, but for at least two reasons these transcripts make for a frustrating, occasionally tedious reading experience. First, the Justices are, of course, barred from discussing any of the past or present cases before them or what happens in their exclusive conference. Second, because they are so frequently asked the same questions about process—how cases come to the Court, how they’re selected for review, how opinions are assigned, etc.—the responses are necessarily identical. Moreover, they give strikingly similar answers to questions about life on the bench. They all revere the Court’s traditions—the robes, the handshake before oral argument and the group lunches that follow, the quill pens given to attorneys who argue before them—treasure the collegiality of their peers, admire the professionalism of the Supreme Court Bar, appreciate the assistance of their clerks and fully recognize the steep learning curve imposed on any new appointee. Occasionally, as with the garrulous Stephen Breyer or the guileless Sonia Sotomayor, some genuine personality breaks through. More satisfying are the discussions with Court specialists, including veteran court reporter Lyle Denniston, historian James B. O’Hara and especially appellate attorney and former law clerk Maureen Mahoney. A helpful appendix provides short biographies of the Justices, a listing of all previous Court members and the answers to a poll revealing only dim public understanding of the Court. Other, similar C-SPAN projects—e.g., Lamb and Swain, Abraham Lincoln: Great American Historians on Our Sixteenth President, 2008—have translated into more pleasurable and edifying reading, but these dismal poll results reinforce the need for this elemental civics lesson.
A unique historical snapshot of most interest to those just learning about the nation’s highest court.