New PBS series on the supreme court focuses on the history of personalities

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... WNET, in New York, has produced an impressive if occasionally off-target new four-part series for PBS on the court's history. It starts with the great formative years under Chief Justice John Marshall, runs through the struggles leading to the Civil War, examines the court's shifting perspectives on property rights and government regulation during the post-Civil War years of rapid economic expansion, assesses the impact of the New Deal and the civil-rights movement, and finally discusses the court's steady conservative drift during the tenures of Chief Justices Warren E. Burger and William H. Rehnquist. Each segment focuses on the careers of the leading justices whose work and views typified the constitutional crosscurrents of their eras.

The series, directed by Thomas Lennon, produced by Mark Zwonitzer, and narrated by David Strathairn, features interviews with court historians, legal scholars, lawyers, former court clerks, journalists, and even some of the justices themselves, notably Roberts and retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The result is a rich tapestry of commentary on the court and its development that should be edifying to the general public and may hold a few discoveries for those already familiar with the institution's history.

One of the program's commentators, Jeffrey Rosen, of George Washington University, wrote the companion book, The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America. It covers the same territory as the documentary with an even sharper focus on the role of judicial personality in shaping the court. Rosen argues that the court's rulings in each major period of its history can be explained by the interplay between contrasting temperaments among justices, or between justices and figures in other branches of government. He selects four periods of court history (roughly coinciding with the four episodes of the series) and in each describes two contrasting temperaments, one praiseworthy and one vulnerable to criticism, that influenced the trajectory of the law and shaped the court as an institution.

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