Garrett Epps is Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore. He covers the Supreme Court for theatlantic.com. His book, American Epic: Reading the US Constitution was published in August 2013 by Oxford University Press.
This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill requiring TV access to Supreme Court arguments. Justice Sonia Sotomayor isn’t waiting: she made her debut on Sesame Street this week. Though she and Maria were just trying to enjoy “un cafecito,” they were interrupted by Baby Bear, who demanded a judgment in his case against Goldie Locks, who had (as the record has long reflected) broken his tiny chair during a most flagrant trespass quare clausum fregit.
Stephen Reinhardt, a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, has been called almost everything in the book. Conservatives slaver at the mention of his name; even liberals sometimes criticize his audacity. The Onion once ran a deadpan story reporting that he had “ruled the private celebration of Christmas unconstitutional ... ‘[i]n accordance with my activist agenda to secularize the nation.’”
When the 112th House of Representatives opened this past January with a reading of the United States Constitution, the intended political message was clear—the Republican Party was back to rescue the Constitution.
Less clear was what Constitution Republicans were vowing to save. The version they ordered read was, in fact, stripped of language the leadership considered “superseded by amendment,” even though those measures are still in the text. Some are embarrassing. The provisions protecting slavery, for example, call into question the infallibility of the Founding Fathers. Since one of the standard conservative talking points is that the “original intent” of the framers is an infallible guide to wisdom, the fallible parts were better left unmentioned.
In 1940, a small group of children, bullied by intolerant adults, sought the protection of the United States Supreme Court. The nation's highest court spat in their faces. The results were so violent and tragic that the Court reversed itself three years later, trying to call a halt to the injustice it had spawned.
This story--the story of Minersville School District v. Gobitis and West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette--still teaches lessons today about the quality of justice, the character of judges, and the role of courts in spurring, or retarding, social change.
Ask the average TV writer what word he associates with "evil" and the answer is likely not to be "Milosevic" or "Enron" but "private law firm." TV writers don't really know what goes on in the plush offices of big firms, but they know it's bad. No less a cultural indicator than acclaimed scriptwriter Joss Whedon, seeking the focus of evil in Los Angeles for his heroic-vampire drama Angel, created a megafirm called Wolfram and Hart, with lawyers so vicious that their clients -- werewolves, demons and assorted soul-stealers -- were afraid to be alone with them.