TV Series Visits the High Court
Supreme Court justices aren’t exactly the chattiest people in Washington.
Sure, from time to time they give speeches at universities, sharing their esteemed thoughts on the grandeur of constitutional law. And occasionally, they might make an appearance at a charity dinner, although it would be a rare thing to see them get up and start cracking jokes.
But somehow, despite the justices’ publicity-shy nature, C-SPAN managed to persuade all 11 living current and former justices to be interviewed about their lives on the court for the channel’s “Supreme Court Week,— which kicks off Sunday night.
The weeklong special begins with “The Supreme Court: Home to America’s Highest Court,— an 90-minute film studying everything from the actual building to its inhabitants to its important legal decisions. Throughout the week, the network will air more in-depth looks at various aspects of the court, including lengthy interviews with the justices.
“It’s not only a legal institution, it’s really a human institution,— said Executive Producer Mark Farkas, who also produced the network’s popular documentaries on the White House and Capitol. “Really, they talked about a variety of things. … You find out some interesting little tidbits.—
Originally, C-SPAN wanted to do a documentary on the Supreme Court building itself, much like its films on the Capitol and White House. And C-SPAN does offer its audience a very detailed portrait of the building, from its history, to shots of rooms off-limits to the public.
“Especially after 9/11, it’s harder for people to visit some of these places,— Farkas said. “Let’s open it up, let’s show people what it looks like. … Let’s take them behind the scenes.—
But once filmmakers began shooting and persuaded the justices to chat, “it morphed into something that we knew going in that we were going to get good access,— Farkas said.The justices go into great detail about the inner workings of the court, and the documentary focuses on its unique collegiality — another thing that arguably separates the justices from other prominent Washingtonians. Every day after oral arguments wrap up, for example, the justices sit in the court’s dining room to chat. There’s only one subject they won’t discuss, Farkas said.
“It is a rule there that they do not talk about the oral arguments,— he said. “They talk about grandkids, they talk about the theater, they talk about golf tournaments.—
After an oral argument on a given case is held, the justices will wait 72 hours before sitting down for a conversation about it. Then, they won’t discuss it publicly again, choosing to communicate through back-and-forth writing.
“It’s old-fashioned in that way,— Farkas said, noting that Chief Justice John Roberts rarely even touches a computer — he still writes his opinions by hand.
Not all of the topics focus on the procedures of the court. Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the court, recalled that when she first joined the body, the most difficult thing was picking out something to wear.
“There were very few robes available. I didn’t know anybody who made robes for women justices,— O’Connor recalls in the film. “And I think most of what was available was something like a choir robe, or an academic robe.—
Initially, O’Connor just wore a simple black robe that she already owned from her time as a judge in Arizona. O’Connor didn’t even bother picking out a judicial collar to go with the robe until someone who had sat in the audience during an oral argument wrote her a note asking why.
“It was hard to find. Nobody in those days made judicial white collars for women,— O’Connor said. “I discovered that the only places you could get them would be in England or France.—
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg echoed her colleague’s remarks while showing off one of her own robes for the C-SPAN cameras, noting that the robe is from England while the attached white collar came from Cape Town, South Africa.
“You know, the standard robe is made for a man, because it has a place for the shirt to show and the tie. So Sandra Day O’Connor and I thought it would be appropriate if we included it as part of our robe something typical of a woman,— she said.
What the film makes clear, Farkas said, is that the justices really make an effort to get along: The left-leaning Ginsburg and notoriously right-leaning Justice Antonin Scalia are good friends, despite the fact that they hardly ever side together on some of the court’s tougher decisions.
Farkas still isn’t sure why the justices agreed to talk, but he’s glad they did.
“Now, they didn’t all say yes’ at the same time,— he said. “My guess is probably once five or six of them had done it, you know, they do have these lunches. Maybe it was a topic of conversation.—