Why the Supreme Court Matters: A PBS Miniseries Shines the Light of Justice on the Highest Court in the Land

Article excerpt

YOU WATCH television, work at a part-time job, attend a Boy Scout meeting, or hang out with friends on the street. Did you know that Supreme Court decisions affect each one of these activities?

The Federal Communications Commission regulates what you hear on the radio or watch on network television to prevent the broadcast of indecent or profane programs likely to reach children (FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 1978). The government can pass laws limiting the hours that individuals under age 18 may work (United States v. Darby, 1941). The Boy Scouts of America is a private organization that has the right to fire a scout leader because of that person's sexual orientation (Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 2000). People have the fight to be out on the street and associate with others. Anti-loitering ordinances, even those designed to reduce gang activity, are unconstitutional (Chicago v. Morales, 1999).

The Supreme Court decides cases that affect our government, the fabric of civic life, intimate family matters, and everyday activities. Many important political controversies now reach the Court as well, such as Pres. George W. Bush's decision to use military tribunals for enemy soldiers detained at Guantanamo Bay (Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 2006) and the contested 2000 presidential election between Bush and Al Gore. The Court also resolves disputes over the public expression of religious beliefs, a woman's or minor's right to an abortion, and when the police can search a home, car, or student locker.

Throughout its long and sometimes tumultuous history, the Supreme Court has issued numerous landmark rulings in cases brought by ordinary citizens determined to have their day in court. The dramatic stories and the often controversial decisions made by these sometimes enigmatic, black-robed figures sitting on the court of last resort are at the heart of "The Supreme Court," a four-part series produced by Thirteen/WNET New York for PBS. David Strathairn, who starred in the Academy Award-nominated 2005 film about groundbreaking journalist Edward R. Murrow, "Good Night, and Good Luck," narrates. The series premieres with back-to-back one-hour episodes Jan. 31. The final two 60-minute installments air Feb. 7.

With Pres. Bush's appointments of John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice (replacing the late William Rehnquist) and Samuel Alito as associate justice (taking over for the retired Sandra Day O'Connor), the Supreme Court has been in the spotlight as well as the news. The Roberts Court, which convened its second term Oct. 2, is expected to tackle a number of high-profile cases on such diverse issues as affirmative action, air pollution, immigration, and patent law.

Since World War II, the Supreme Court has turned its attention to the protection of individual rights and liberties for Americans of all ages. Speech and criminal proceedings are two areas where the Court has expanded rights for citizens. When two Iowa high school students wore black armbands with a peace symbol to protest the war in Vietnam and were suspended as a result, the Court found in favor of the students, maintaining that individuals do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate" (Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969). In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the Court ruled that suspects have a right to remain silent during police interrogation. In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Court proclaimed that suspects have a right to a lawyer even if they cannot pay for one. …