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History of the Supreme Court

History of the Supreme Court

Professor Peter Irons, Ph.D.,M.A., J.D.
University of California, San Diego

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History of the Supreme Court

Course No. 8570
Professor Peter Irons, Ph.D.,M.A., J.D.
University of California, San Diego
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4.3 out of 5
81 Reviews
69% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 8570
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version features more than 300 visuals that reveal the history of the Supreme Court, primarily portraits and historical scenes, in addition to archival video.
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Course Overview

For more than two centuries, the Supreme Court has exerted extraordinary influence over the way we Americans live our daily lives. The Court has defined the limits of our speech and actions since its first meeting in 1790, adding to our history books names such as John Marshall, Louis Brandeis, Hugo Black, Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and many others.

Have you ever wondered what goes into shaping the Court's decisions—or the beliefs of its justices? Or how the nine justices blend divergent and often strongly conflicting philosophies to reach decisions that reflect consensus—or sometimes fail to? How even a single change in the body of the Court can alter dramatically not only the Court's ideological balance but its cooperative chemistry, as well? Or what it sounded like in the Court as some of the most important cases in our history were argued?

The Powers of Law and Politics in the Judiciary

The History of the Supreme Court answers these questions and more as it traces the development of the Court from a body having little power or prestige to its current status as "the most powerful and prestigious judicial institution in the world." The course is taught by a professor schooled in law and politics—both of which are critical to understanding the Court—who is an honored teacher as well as an experienced advocate.

Professor Irons's experience includes initiating the case that ultimately cleared the records of three Japanese Americans whose convictions for resisting World War II internment had been upheld by the Court.

He has also discovered and made available to the public for the first time historic audio recordings of arguments begun during the era of Chief Justice Earl Warren.

Several historic recordings are highlighted in this course. You will have a front-row seat as you hear lawyers arguing before the Court—and the justices' replies. Among those you'll hear are:

  • Dramatic moments from the debates in Roe v. Wade
  • The voice of future Justice Thurgood Marshall, standing to defend the rights he had won four years earlier in Brown v. Board of Education, when the Court struck down the doctrine of "separate but equal" education that had endured since Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

Consensus ... Continuity ... Diversity

As he tells the Court's story, Professor Irons returns to the themes he declares have been critical to the Court's transformation into that "powerful and prestigious" institution:

  • How the Court works to achieve consensus, even in the face of conflicting judicial views
  • How the Court's decisions reflect changes in our society while still achieving the judicial continuity so essential to stability in the law
  • How diversity in so many aspects of American society—and especially in race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation—has influenced both the Court's decisions and choices of cases.

The course is rich in biographical snapshots of the justices as well as the advocates who stood before them, and the dozens of ordinary men and women whose cases reached the court.

Meet the People who Made an Impact

You'll meet Chief Justice Roger Taney, John Marshall's proslavery successor, whose ruling in Dred Scott v. John Sandford—that no black man could be a citizen—is considered the Court's most shameful decision. At his death, one critic remarked that Taney had "earned the gratitude of his country by dying at last. Better late than never."

You'll encounter a man named Ernesto Miranda, whose 1966 case, Miranda v. Arizona, established the Miranda rights that have become standard procedure in police interrogations, and you'll listen to recordings of lawyers for both sides arguing the case.

Wide-ranging in scope, and clear and nuanced in its presentation, The History of the Supreme Court offers a fascinating look into a vital institution.

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36 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    Personality and Principle
    We outline the Court's development as an institution and discuss the themes that will recur throughout the course: continuity and change, consensus and conflict, and the societal diversity that creates many of the Court's cases. x
  • 2
    Shaping the Constitution and the Court
    This lecture discusses the factors that led to the drafting of a new Constitution and the debates over the shape of the new government. x
  • 3
    Ratification and the Bill of Rights
    We examine the debates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 over ratification between the supporting Federalists and the Antifederalists, as well as the addition of the Bill of Rights in 1791 and the workings of the Court during its first decade. x
  • 4
    John Marshall Takes Control
    The impact of Marshall's 34-year tenure as Chief Justice has been significant and long-lasting. This lecture examines his career and influence. x
  • 5
    Impeachment, Contract, and Federal Power
    This lecture examines the impeachment and trial of Justice Samuel Chase, as well as several landmark cases that grew out of the rapid growth of the nation in the 19th century. x
  • 6
    Roger Taney Takes Control
    When Roger Taney—a fervent advocate of states rights and slavery—became Chief Justice after the death of John Marshall, the Court's reading of the Constitution became very different. x
  • 7
    “A Small Pleasant-Looking Negro”
    The conflict over slavery holds center stage in this lecture, which looks at the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the growth of the abolitionist movement, with its primary focus on Chief Justice Taney and a slave named Dred Scott. x
  • 8
    The Civil War Amendments
    This lecture begins with the national debate following the Dred Scott decision and continues with the effect on the Court of both the Civil War and Reconstruction. x
  • 9
    “Separate but Equal”
    Beginning with the so-called "stolen election" of 1876, this lecture looks at the Courts of Chief Justices Morrison Waite and Melville Fuller, with added focus on Justice John Marshall Harlan and the "separate but equal" doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson. x
  • 10
    Two Justices from Boston
    This lecture looks at the backgrounds, legal careers, and judicial approaches of two justices who differed in many ways but shared a devotion to the First Amendment: Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis. x
  • 11
    The Laissez-Faire Court
    This lecture analyzes the Court's conflicts between 1877 and 1908 over the notion of a "laissez-faire Constitution" based on "liberty of contract" and the effect of its decisions on later New Deal rulings. x
  • 12
    “Clear and Present Danger”
    This lecture looks at how World War I impacted the limits of political protest, examining three "sedition" cases that established the famous "clear and present danger" test. x
  • 13
    The Taft Court and the Twenties
    In the midst of post-war conservative reaction, former President William Howard Taft became Chief Justice, leading a staunchly conservative Court that nevertheless issued some surprising decisions regarding education. x
  • 14
    Wins and Losses for New Deal Laws
    This lecture examines the reactions of the Court, under Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, to President Franklin Roosevelt's efforts to fulfill his promises of a "New Deal." x
  • 15
    “Court Packing” and Constitutional Revolution
    This lecture looks at both President Roosevelt's attempt to "pack the Court" to ensure passage of his proposals and the effects of the "Constitutional Revolution" unleashed by key 1937 decisions. x
  • 16
    The New Dealers Take Control
    The retirements or deaths of five justices between 1937 and 1940 gave President Roosevelt an opportunity to create a "New Deal-friendly" Court. This lecture focuses on three of his choices: Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, and William O. Douglas. x
  • 17
    “Beyond the Reach of Majorities”
    The Court's role in protecting the rights of religious minorities is highlighted in several major rulings involving members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, including two centered on the refusal of school children to salute the flag. x
  • 18
    Pearl Harbor and Panic
    This lecture examines the Court's rulings in cases arising from the mass evacuation and internment of West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II. x
  • 19
    The Supreme Court and the Communist Party
    This lecture is devoted to the Court's major rulings in cases involving the Communist Party from 1937 to 1951, an era when suspicion of possible subversion by pro-Soviet sympathizers was a major social undercurrent. x
  • 20
    Thurgood Marshall—Lawyer and Justice
    Beginning with a biographical focus on Thurgood Marshall, this lecture introduces the strategy and early cases he developed as the leader of the NAACP's campaign to strike down the South's "Jim Crow" laws. x
  • 21
    Five Jim Crow Schools and Five Cases
    We follow Marshall's final assault on segregated education as five carefully selected cases move to the Court, focusing not only on Marshall, but on the lawyers who worked with him and the federal judges they faced. x
  • 22
    The Hearts and Minds of Black Children
    This lecture examines the oral arguments and court deliberations in those five cases—decided in May 1954 as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas—including the determination of new Chief Justice Earl Warren to achieve a unanimous ruling. x
  • 23
    “War Against the Constitution”
    Brown produced three important issues discussed in this lecture: the implementation of the decision, the South's reaction to the Court's call for "all deliberate speed," and the Court's 1958 response to the most serious case of resistance, in Little Rock, Arkansas. x
  • 24
    Earl Warren—Politician to Chief Justice
    We look at the background and career of Chief Justice Earl Warren, whose appointment to the Court as a political reward by President Dwight Eisenhower gave little indication of the era that was to follow. x
  • 25
    “We Beg Thy Blessings”
    Four major rulings between 1947 and 1963 involving the government's commitment to religious neutrality and religion in the classroom provide the backbone of this lecture. x
  • 26
    “You Have the Right to Remain Silent”
    Though the Constitution includes four amendments protecting the rights of defendants, it was not until the Warren years that a national code of criminal procedure began to evolve. This lecture looks at key rulings involving search-and-seizure, the right to counsel, and the right to remain silent. x
  • 27
    The Warren Court Reshapes the Constitution
    This lecture examines several controversial rulings, including those involving the issues of "one man, one vote," racial discrimination in "public accommodations," and the First Amendment rights of students. x
  • 28
    Earl Warren Leaves, Warren Burger Arrives
    This lecture discusses Chief Justice Warren's unusual 1969 retirement and his replacement by Warren Burger, and two landmark rulings by the Burger Court on the busing of school children, and the publication of the Pentagon Papers. x
  • 29
    “A Right to Privacy”
    This lecture begins a discussion of the Court's rulings on abortion and includes a look at two justices placed on the Court by President Richard Nixon: Louis Powell and, in some detail, Chief Justice William Rehnquist. x
  • 30
    From Abortion to Watergate
    Two cases form the core of this lecture: Roe v. Wade, including the development of Justice Harry Blackmun's majority opinion, and the Watergate Tapes case of Nixon v. United States. x
  • 31
    The Court Faces Affirmative Action
    The issue of affirmative action to address long-standing patterns of discrimination is the focus of this lecture, including the Court's landmark 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. x
  • 32
    Down from the Pedestal, Out of the Closet
    This lecture discusses the Court's rulings in cases dealing with discrimination against two groups women and homosexuals. x
  • 33
    Burning Flags and Burning Crosses
    This lecture examines the Court's rulings in two cases involving "symbolic speech"—flag-burning as political protest and cross-burning as an expression of racial hatred—as well as major changes in the Court's membership in 1986 and 1987. x
  • 34
    Prayer and Abortion Return to the Court
    The Court's landmark decisions in cases involving school prayer and abortion did little to resolve the controversy surrounding those issues, which the Court has been forced to revisit several times since. x
  • 35
    One Vote Decides Two Crucial Cases
    This lecture begins with the Court's continuing struggle to deal with abortion, including the complex reasoning that produced the decision not to overturn Roe v. Wade, and ends with its five-to-four ruling in the disputed presidential election of 2000. x
  • 36
    Looking Back and Looking Ahead
    The course concludes with a look back at the Court's history in terms of the roles played by our basic themes of continuity and change, consensus and conflict, and societal diversity. x

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Course Guidebook Details:
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  • Questions to consider
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Your professor

Peter Irons

About Your Professor

Peter Irons, Ph.D.,M.A., J.D.
University of California, San Diego
Dr. Peter Irons is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. He earned his undergraduate degree from Antioch College and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Boston University. He earned his J.D. from Harvard Law School, where he served as senior editor of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. Before taking his position at San Diego, Professor Irons taught at...
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History of the Supreme Court is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 80.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Full, excellent overview of the Supreme Court The very knowledgeable professor gives a very full and completely apprehensive overview of the Court. Worth every penny!
Date published: 2017-03-15
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Advocacy not Education This is just more advocacy from ACLU; this is not real education. I was disappointed by a thin to nonexistent legal arguments of key cases the professor presents, e.g., Fletcher v. Peck; Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge; and Munn v. Illinois. This professor only gives you brief case summaries, if that, and tells you that these cases where important for property rights. The problem is that he ignores actual legal arguments in favor of "significance," ideology," etc. As other reviewers have correctly pointed out, this course is not a history of the Supreme Court but a civil rights advocacy, a narrative in which the U.S. government is a villain (save for "progressive" Supreme Court justices) that victimizes kind, soulful minorities. The professor in this course acts like a lawyer who zealously (though in a soft voice) represents the interests of one side. The feeling this gives is that the other side (the side he ignores or attacks) has no legitimate interests or is not even worthy of consideration. Peter Irons is on the side of the good and the enlightened; the other side is either evil or ignorant. Having earned my Ph.D. in Political Science from a liberal university (but I am being redundant, as if there is any other ideological kind of university), I can say that Dr. Irons' approach is all-too-typical among high-powered academics. Either you are with them or you are not a deserving student/scholar/person. This course, thus, provides a window into what our social science graduate programs have become. Dr. Irons is not a special case when it comes to bias and ideology; he's just been at it longer and accomplished more in pursuit of his ideology than most.
Date published: 2017-01-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Exceptional teacher, but not always balanced. I've read other reviews of this course which make my main point, so I'll try to address other issues. Professor Irons is certainly a knowledgeable observer of the late 20th-century Supreme Court. He knows his stuff. His lectures are engaging and compelling. His delivery is polished. In terms of style, this is one of the best-taught of the Great Courses - nearly up there with the classical music courses (though not as funny). Without question, Professor Irons has a bias. He is intensely interested - some might say, "obsessed" - with America's long racial history. And he is quick to acknowledge a liberal bias, and to remind his listeners of this bias at regular intervals. Thus, it's not surprising that this course focuses on slavery, civil rights, and late in the series - the application of the Bill of Rights to the states (through "incorporation") and the development of the right of privacy, focusing, inevitably, on Roe v. Wade. Many other areas of constitutional, statutory, economic and administrative law are given relatively short shrift. Which is, really, not a bad thing. A full-blown course in the history of the Supreme Court would require 72 lectures, if not 144. By sticking to one major theme in the Court's evolution, Professor Irons tells a good story - and he tells it well. If there is a real weakness in the course, it lies in the professor's relative unfamiliarity with the early days of the Court. At one point, for example, he baldly states that President Thomas Jefferson was behind the attempt to impeach Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase - an interpretation which was effectively exploded by Professor Richard Ellis in 1971. Likewise, throughout the pre-Civil War period, Professor Irons is quick to assign "racism" as the sufficient explanation for any act or decision which tended to support the institution of slavery. Truly, the issues were a great deal more complicated than that. One needn't excuse the practice of chattel slavery to appreciate that - once the system was in place - many wise and good men (and women) were at a loss to figure out how to end it. But let's not the course's occasional weaknesses at the expense of its strengths. For any serious adult who wants to learn something about the Supreme Court and its history, this is an excellent jumping-off point. Keep in mind Professor Irons' biases - and he will remind you of them, often enough - and you'll learn a lot!
Date published: 2017-01-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the Best Courses I Have Purchased It has been more than 50 years since I graduated from law school. My professor in constitutional law, of blessed memory, had served as a law clerk for the great justice Louis Brandeis. I had even written a published article on criminal-constitutional law. However, once I was out practicing in the real worId, I never had the occasion to use constitutional law. I purchased this course thinking it might be nice to pick up a refresher on the subject after more than half a century. It turned out to be much more than that. I found the course to be absolutely delightful – informative and insightful – without being too heavy. Professor Irons considered factors that we did not cover in law school. Trial and appellate lawyers are trained to develop legal arguments and to sharpen the rhetorical devices that are the tools of their trade. Professor Irons makes these arguments come alive as he presents the competitive points made before the justices and then shows how the Supreme Court uses the arguments – or selected portions of the arguments – to support its decisions. However, in addition, he also places the cases he has selected into an historical perspective and presents thumbnail biographies of some of the justices so that we have a better understanding of their own personal views, which may often have a significant bearing upon the opinion rendered. In this aspect, Professor Irons went beyond classical legal analysis in explaining and clarifying the opinions in some of the most important cases decided by the Supreme Court. Although a person with a legal background may have a deeper appreciation of some of the issues and arguments presented by Professor Irons, in my opinion such a background is absolutely unnecessary for a thoroughly enjoyable learning experience. I am looking forward to a future incarnation of this course, which may cover more recent constitutional law cases. However, until that comes along, I would recommend this course highly to anyone is interested in understanding the judicial branch of our government
Date published: 2016-12-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beautifully taught, intersting, wonderful! This course turned out to be fascinating! Obviously, the United States supreme court has played a pivotal role in USA history. In fact, its influence has been much wider and has affected justice systems across the globe. Having said this, when you start to consider the infrastructure of this institution, some very interesting points come up… As was clear to, and intended by, the architects of the constitution – the role of the court is the least democratic of all of the governing bodies described in the constitution and the most elitist. Its members are elected for life, assuming good behavior, and they are politically appointed. Perhaps because I am not American, I was surprised to see how political the supreme court appointments are, and how directly this political affiliation split the court in many cases. The course follows two main threads: the first is to introduce the supreme justices that were key in the supreme court’s important decisions or important dissents. Many central justices are analyzed, taking into account their cultural, religious and political background in relation to the way they tended to decide in court cases. The other thread is simply following the landmark supreme court cases, understanding the historical and political circumstances in which the cases were tried, and evaluating the long-lasting effects that some of these rulings had on American history. Naturally, there is a lot of interaction between the two main threads. I was not expecting this course to be so interesting. Professor Irons did an outstanding job in structuring the course to make it accessible to virtually anyone who is interested. His multi-dimensional analysis of the court - political, legal, personal, historical – gave a broad and comprehensive overview of how the court functions, its purpose and its goals. A wonderful and well taught course.
Date published: 2016-12-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant This course was like a great book that you simply could not put down. A real page turner. The lecturer is knowledgable, skilled and with high level presentational skills. Whether discussing personalities, the constitution, or cases the lecturer explained the issues clearly and made the whole subject come alive.
Date published: 2016-11-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A good history of the Court. As others have noted, Professor Irons states his liberal political beliefs upfront and this is very helpful. As a conservative, I am used to studying political matters mostly from instructors who approach things from a liberal perspective. I wish it were not so, but I have learned much from liberals without necessarily agreeing with their conclusions. We all should expect to be challenged in our thinking, especially in taking college courses. I wish universities still felt so, instead of black-balling conservative or "classical liberal" scholars. Now that I've followed his lead and stated my own biases, this course will give you a good, basic history of the Supreme Court's most well-known justices, its institutional history and its place within the American system. After the basics It will focus on cases involving the Bill of Rights and civil rights cases. These cases, Irons explains, constitute the most accessible areas of the Supreme Court's opinions and serve as examples of how the changing character of the Justices changed the Court's outlook in these areas. Irons is entertaining and engaging in his presentation, never dull, and eminently listenable. I listened to the audio version and enjoyed it on my commute. I have previously studied the Supreme Court so I was already familiar with some of the cases he will take you through. His approach is fair, balanced and true to what I remember from my Con Law undergraduate class. But there was more development here on the civil rights and free speech cases than I had received previously, which is also to say there was far LESS emphasis on cases involving property rights, government regulatory powers and the tug-of-war between business and the government. Those are fascinating, highly relevant areas of the law. They are not dull. They affect everyone. They affect people's livelihoods and ability to run their own affairs. And they are sadly short-changed in this course. I also believe a longer 2nd Edition of this course might be warranted, given that omission and the many landmark cases in civil rights AND campaign finance law AND eminent domain case law that have been handed down since 2003 when this course was produced. I'm glad I took this course and greatly appreciated the back-stories of Thurgood Marshall's involvement in the school desegregation cases before he was a Justice himself.
Date published: 2016-09-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Lecture on History of the Supreme Court Dr. Irons provides a good lecture on the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. Irons' personality seems to get reflected throughout the entire series, which allows listeners to gain insights into his passion - unquestionably the United States law. He brings buckets of relevance into his lectures and not one of them is boring or self-righteous. His lectures aren't hard to understand or track, which made the learning experience pleasurable but not altogether memorable. Lecture lengths are generally appropriate and logically follow the actual historical events of the Supreme Court. While his teaching style is positive and even enthusiastic, Irons occasionally rabbit chases with anecdotal stories which, at times, are fitting and, at times, somewhat distracting. As a whole, Dr. Irons does a good job linking each lecture and providing a solid thinking foundation for understanding the Supreme Court principal players and court room issues. Overall this series is good. It accomplishes my personal goal with any of The Great Courses lecture series which is growth in an area about which I previously knew very little. Dr. Irons, indeed, accomplishes that goal. I'll be curious to see if and when he puts out another lecture series.
Date published: 2016-09-21
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