Supreme Court of the United States in fiction

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Like many institutions that draw public interest, the Supreme Court of the United States has frequently been depicted in fiction, often in the form of legal drama. In some instances, real decisions rendered by real courts are dramatized, as in Gideon's Trumpet and the seminal trial in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Other depictions are purely fictional, but center on realistic issues that come before the court. Television series centered on dramatizing the happenings of the court have proven to be short-lived, and have tended to receive overall negative critical reaction.[1][2] One reason that has been suggested is that the Supreme Count is a court of appeals, whereas most legal drama portrays trial courts. Appeals may appear "bookish" in contrast to the theatrical storytelling of trials, especially juries. Furthermore, American audiences are not very knowledgeable about or interested in the Supreme Court.[3]

Television series[edit]

  • First Monday (13 episodes in 2002, starring Joe Mantegna and James Garner). Mantegna portrayed a fictional Joseph Novelli, a moderate and potential swing vote appointed to a Supreme Court evenly divided between conservatives and liberals. Garner was the conservative Chief Justice.
  • The Court (3 episodes, also in 2002, starring Sally Field)
  • The West Wing involved frequent discussions or depictions of fictional past and present Supreme Court justices. Two episodes ("The Short List" in 1999, and "Celestial Navigation" in 2000) center on the nomination of "Roberto Mendoza," played by Edward James Olmos, as the first Hispanic Justice. A third episode, "The Supremes" in 2004, dealt with the issue of preserving ideological balance on the Court, the President makes a deal with the Republican Congress to simultaneously appoint a very liberal judge "Evelyn Baker Lang" (played by Glenn Close) as the Court's first female Chief Justice, and a very conservative judge, "Christopher Mulready" (played by William Fichtner) as an Associate Justice. The 2000 episode "Take This Sabbath Day" opened with a scene depicting the Court's main chamber.
  • In Boston Legal, Alan Shore and Denny Crane argue two cases before the Supreme Court during the series. In "The Court Supreme", Shore argues for overturning the death penalty sentence of a mentally handicapped man convicted of raping a young girl, which was based heavily on the 2008 case Kennedy v. Louisiana. In the series finale "Last Call", Shore returns to the Court to argue for Crane being allowed access to an experimental drug for Alzheimer's disease.
  • In The Simpsons episode, "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie", Bart Simpson is shown as ultimately becoming Chief Justice of the United States.
  • In the Picket Fences episode "May It Please the Court", broadcast on 18 November 1994, defense attorney Douglas Wambaugh (played by Fyvush Finkel) and District Attorney John Littleton (played by Don Cheadle) engaged in oral arguments before the Court (with actors playing the real justices); Supreme Court oral argument veteran Alan Dershowitz guest starred as himself, advising Wambaugh on strategy for addressing the Court. The case dealt with the admissibility of a murderer's confession.
  • Recount is a 2008 movie depicting the Florida election recount at the end of the 2000 Presidential Election in the United States. At the end of the movie, actors who looked like attorney David Boies, attorney Theodore Olson, and the nine justices sitting on the Supreme Court in 2000 reenacted key sections from oral argument of Bush v. Gore. Two actors read sections of opinions written by Antonin Scalia and John Paul Stevens.
  • Outlaw (8 episodes in 2010) starred Jimmy Smits as the fictional Cyrus Garza, a Justice who resigns from the bench to start his own law firm, as a way to more directly promote the ends of justice. The show was placed on hiatus after three episodes, and was never brought back.[4][5]
  • Scandal (Season 2) features Associate Justice Verna Thornton (Debra Mooney) as a primary antagonist for the first half of the second season. Aware that President Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III (Tony Goldwyn) ascended to the presidency through voter fraud in Defiance County, Ohio she attempted to have him assassinated. Suffering with terminal cancer, she was pressured by Vice President Sally Langston (Kate Burton) to give up her seat, to which she refused, she is eventually suffocated in hospital by President Grant so she cannot reveal the truth about his election, with her death being made to look like the result of the cancer.
  • In House of Cards (Season 3), President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is approached by Associate Justice Robert Jacobs (Jonathan Hogan) who requests he be allowed to retire due to having started to develop alzheimers. However, Underwood expresses his desire for Jacobs to remain on the court until he has passed groundbreaking job creation legislation. Underwood later tries to discourage his political rival, Solicitor General Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) from running against him by offering her Jacob's place on the court, but she announces her candidacy before he can formally nominate her. Another named member of the court is Associate Justice Moretti (Kris Andrews), the court is shown to be composed of three women and six men, two of whom are African-American.
  • Political Animals (2012 miniseries) features Associate Justice Diane Nash (Vanessa Redgrave), the first openly gay member of the court. She serves as a friend and mentor to Secretary of State Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver).
  • Madam Secretary (Seasons 2, 3 and 4) features occasional appearances of Chief Justice Frawley (Morgan Freeman), a close friend of Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni). Freeman also serves as an executive producer for the show.
  • Veep (Season 6) sees former President Stuart Hughes nominated to a vacant position on the Supreme Court by President Laura Montez (Andrea Savage) after the death of Associate Justice Tenny. Hughes becomes the second person after William Howard Taft to serve as both President and as a Supreme Court justice.
  • In Homeland (Season 7), President Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel)'s decision to fire four members of her cabinet to prevent them from invoking the 25th Amendment is challenged in the Supreme Court, who reject her dismissal of the secretaries as an illegal act and thus allow the 25th Amendment to be invoked and her to be temporarily replaced in office by Vice President Ralph Warner (Beau Bridges).
  • Designated Survivor (Season 2) features Chief Justice Peter Koemann (Keith Dinicol) in the season finale, who confronts President Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) about his Chief of Staff trying to influence the decisions of the court in relation to potential criminal charges being brought against him.

Film[edit]

Completely fictional depictions[edit]

  • First Monday in October (1981), this story about the first woman on the Supreme Court came out in 1981, the year Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman on the court. The film was based on a Broadway production which had opened in 1978, and starred Jane Alexander as the central Justice Ruth Loomis.
  • Swing Vote, is a 1999 TV movie in which the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned the Roe vs. Wade decision and thrown the issue of abortion rights back to the individual states. Alabama has subsequently outlawed abortion, and prosecutes for first degree murder when a woman terminates her pregnancy. Newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Joseph Kirkland (Andy García) will turn out to be the deciding vote in a case that could reinstate a woman's right to choose but Kirkland finds himself surrounded by proponents of both the pro-choice and pro-life agendas, with his fellow justices, his secretary and even his wife trying to influence his vote. Other fictional justices portrayed in the film are: The Chief Justice (Robert Prosky)); Justice Clore Cawley (Ray Walston); Justice Will Dunn (Harry Belafonte); Justice Daniel Morissey (James Whitmore); Justice Sara Marie Brandwynne (Kate Nelligan); Justice Hank Banks (Albert Hall); Justice Eli MacCorckle (Bob Balaban); Justice Benjamin "Rip" Ripley (John Aylward), and retired Justice Harlan Greene (Milo O'Shea).
  • The Pelican Brief, a 1993 feature film in which a major plot point is the assassination of two fictional Supreme Court Justices, Rosenberg and Jensen.
  • In the 2002 Steven Seagal movie Half Past Dead, Linda Thorson plays Supreme Court Justice June McPherson, who must be rescued after being kidnapped by terrorists while attending the execution of a killer whom she had previously sentenced to death.
  • In the 2006 film, Idiocracy, after 500 years of dumbing down, the United States has replaced the Supreme Court with the "Extreme Court", which sentences the protagonist of the film to a "rehabilitation" death match.
  • The Talk of the Town, a 1942 film with Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and Ronald Colman. Grant plays a radical fugitive who takes refuge at Jean Aurthur's home, which is being rented by Supreme Court nominee Colman, he is seated as an Associate Justice in the final scene.

Fictionalized accounts of real cases or events[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ TV Reviews: 'First Monday' guilty of mediocrity, 15 January 2002
  2. ^ FIRST MONDAY!! Talk Back!!, 15 January 2002.
  3. ^ Olsen, Michelle (29 September 2010). "Why TV Shows About the Supreme Court Tank". LexisNexis. Retrieved 9 May 2016. 
  4. ^ Hibberd, James (6 October 2010). "NBC putting 'Outlaw' on production hiatus". The Hollywood Reporter. Archived from the original on 8 October 2010. Retrieved 7 October 2010. 
  5. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (6 October 2010). "NBC's 'Outlaw' Goes On Production Hiatus". Deadline.com. Retrieved 7 October 2010.