KET to feature two night PBS special on U.S. Supreme Court.

Hal Boedeker  Sentinel Television Critic

 Documentary examines and celebrates the high court and its towering legal minds.

PASADENA, Calif. — PBS offers a 200-years-plus history in The Supreme Court and enlists Chief Justice John Roberts to offer analysis. But this four-hour program, which starts tonight, doesn’t examine the court’s future.

Several court experts obliged during the recent tour of the Television Critics Association.

“At this point, at least, we will not have another resignation before George Bush leaves office,” predicts journalist Joan Biskupic, author of a Sandra Day O’Connor biography.

Biskupic says the two eldest justices, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, seem in pretty good shape.

“I think they all realize how narrowly divided the bench is,” Biskupic says. “The ones who are the oldest are the ones who are hanging on right now in terms of dear life.”

Biskupic calls Stevens “probably the most important justice most of your readers have never heard of because he’s so effective.”

Walter Dellinger, who was acting solicitor general in the Clinton administration, says Democrats’ control of the Senate changes the picture for Bush.

“It would severely limit the persons who could be confirmed,” Dellinger says. “Perhaps a member of the Senate well-regarded by colleagues. It would have to be a very unusual choice.”

This two-part documentary airs from 9 to 11 tonight and concludes at the same time Feb. 7 on WMFE-Channel 24. The program takes a panoramic view of the court, its pivotal figures and notable cases.

In the program, Justice Hugo Black emerges as a more influential figure than Chief Justice Earl Warren.

The documentary celebrates William Rehnquist, an often-unsung chief justice who died in 2005.

“Thurgood Marshall and [William] Brennan said he [Rehnquist] was even better than Warren in terms of his efficiency and amiability,” says Jeffrey Rosen, professor of law at George Washington University Law School. “His colleagues had so much affection for him. . . . They certainly rallied around him when he had thyroid cancer.”

In many ways, The Supreme Court plays like a highlight reel, which could prompt viewers to push to learn more. Who are the court’s towering figures?

“This series makes John Marshall, probably the greatest sitting chief justice, appear very dynamic,” Biskupic says.

She also mentions Oliver Wendell Holmes and Black, adding that the current court holds great fascination. “This is a very young bench,” Biskupic says. (Roberts turned 52 Saturday.)

In picking the most-influential, Dellinger cites the justice for whom he clerked: Black. Dellinger also mentions Marshall, Brennan, Stevens and O’Connor. Former Justice O’Connor takes part in the program.

“I think O’Connor is an enormous historic figure who carried the court, by her pragmatism, through its most difficult years and was really an extraordinary justice,” Dellinger says.

The Supreme Court provides another angle to understanding a country frequently documented on television through presidencies, wars and depressions.

“The history of the court is completely intertwined with the history of America, and the court changes as America changes,” Biskupic says. “The Supreme Court starts to alter how it’s ruling in part because of what’s happening out in the streets.”
 

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