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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
89 Reviews
71% 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.
Audio Streaming Included Free

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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  • Ability to download 36 audio lectures from your digital library
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  • 36 lectures on 6 DVDs
  • 216-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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CD Includes:
  • 36 lectures on 18 CDs
  • 216-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 216-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Timeline

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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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Reviews

History of the Supreme Court is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 89.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Supreme Court History—Not History of Law OK, so I bought this course on a distress sale, mostly because it was in audio only, cheap and I though it was would be interesting during my morning walks. I did not expect too much on the subject of the Court, as I was just filling the time cheaply. But too my great surprise and delight, I found the subject, the course, the content and delivery fascinating. Not at all what I expected. After all 36 lectures devoted to such a small, single subject. How could Professor Irons fill the time? Fill it indeed he did, as I was treated to bios of many of the Court justices (as well as many of the plaintiffs and defendants, as well as the history of the country as it pertained to the court (who knew that John Marshall was a conservative?). Of course I was familiar (as are we all) with many of the landmark cases such as Marbury v Madison, Brown v Board of Education Dred Scott and Rowe v Wade, but totally unfamiliar with many of the others. Now my knowledge has been greatly expanded and to the better. Dr. Irons states up front that he is a card carrying liberal and advocate of civil rights, but at least for me, his biases did not detract from his professional analysis and delivery. True enough that many of his selected cases detail much of the civil rights movement, from Dred Scott (and before) onwards, but then again that is the history of our country. I concede that it may well be that some (for me) obscure ruling on commerce may have significant importance, but in my understanding of America’s growth, they pale in comparison to the Jim Crow laws, the interment of American-Japanese and the equality of women. Having spent some of my formative years in the mid-south during the implementation of school (and other) integration, I was well reminded of the Supreme Court’’s “with all deliberative speed” ruling. And I loved all of the detailing of the subsequent challanges and rulings to that decision, many of which I had forgotten or never known. Some reviewers have felt that Professor Irons is too biased in his presentation, or that he has ignored some salient points of law. While I’m not able to judge what he omitted, what he included was spot on and how he presented it was as balanced as possible. Just a brilliant job and I only wish that another decade could be added to the course.
Date published: 2017-09-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I learned a lot! The presenter in this series of lectures was great. The subject, by nature, got a little dry at times, especially in the earlier lectures. But learning the back story of some of the most important court cases in our history was fascinating. The 20th century lectures were particularly interesting and engrossing.
Date published: 2017-08-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly Useful for High School Teachers of US Gov. This series brings to life not only the iconic cases in Supreme Court history but also the incredibly personal nature of the key decisions and the personalities behind them. The professor is clear about his own biases but fairly presents both sides of each argument.
Date published: 2017-07-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from WE HAVE JUST BEGUN[5 LECTURES]-BUT WE ARE ENJOYING IT SO FAR.
Date published: 2017-05-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Series! The History of the Supreme Court course is an interesting and informative series of lectures given by a professor that not only thoroughly understands his material but delivers it in an manner that captivates and educates his audiences.
Date published: 2017-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Review: " The History Of The Supreme Court" When I 1st saw an ad for " The Great Courses", I went to the website, & the saw the course I wanted : " The History Of The Supreme Court". Quite honestly, the cost of this course was, at that time, prohibitive, so I deferred. Now, with the cost lowered, I purchased - eager to see if my wait was worth it; I'm pleased to state without hesitation, the wait was MORE than worth it ! Professor Irons is a clear, excellent speaker, & his course is the best of the 7 I've purchased to date. My only disappointment was that it ends at the case of " Gore Vs Bush" , in 2000. THAT said, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment & recommend this to anyone who wishes a better understanding of our all-important U.S. Supreme Court, & it's impact on our nation. I give this a 5 Star Recommendation. ---- M. J. Lazzeri, RN, [ Ret.]
Date published: 2017-03-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Almost! Before I purchased the course I did avail myself of the reviews. There were a few “leftist” accusations. I ignored them, after all, what professors these days do not lean to the left! I have four grandchildren attending universities and they all confirm the leftist bent of their professors. So I decided to ignore that aspect of the lectures. I suggest potential students be aware of liberal bent of this course before purchase. Having almost no knowledge of the history and workings of the Supreme Court I jumped in. The course was thoroughly interesting although perhaps a bit one sided on the issues. Although racism is a troubled part of our history it overshadowed the course content. Too much time spent there! I believe there were other important aspects of US history missed. In FDR’s reign a person was barred from raising wheat on his small patch of his land destined to be used for family contention. Citing the Commerce Clause the court held that his less than 2 acre crop would endanger US commerce. That certainly deserved scrutiny herein. A recent case changed the definition of the Takings Clause by allowing a businessman to lose his business because the municipality wanted his land to sell to a developer for construction of a shopping mall. This ruling apparently changed “public use” to “public benefit” as allowing construction of a new shopping mall would increase the tax base over that collected from this small business owner. There should have been time devoted to issues like the two I have cited. I would recommend the course but having publication date of 2003 demands an update to provide more scrutiny of current issues.
Date published: 2017-03-23
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
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