Justice at the Speed of Light

Adjudicating The Court vs. First Monday.

Right. It’s fast, OK? We’re running. Breathlessly racing down corridors and charging through courtyards. Even the justices scurry to conference. Last night, I watched the premiere of the new ABC series about the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court. Brought to you by the same folks who give you The West Wing. So, there’s lots of quickety-quick dialogue, and everyone is very Washington—well-briefed, on the make, wearing pressed khakis. We hurtle from confirmation hearings to airports to Ohio prisons to TV studios to judges’ chambers, to courtrooms, to hotel rooms, and all the while we’re talk-talk-talking about the law.

The law talk is particularly quick: “Eighth Amendment … Ninth Amendment … First Amendment … penumbral privacy rights … strict scrutiny.” You’d best find your Con. Law for Dummies before next week’s episode, because no one is going to explain what these cases are about. This week’s oral argument? Something about three-strikes-you’re-out and cruel and unusual punishment. But I’m not sure. I’m not even sure how the voting went. It sure went fast, though. Whoosh.

Sally Field? Actually I think the reviewers are far too harsh. She can carry this show, without a doubt. Sure, so far her character seems to view legal decision-making as so much political horse-trading and vote-swapping. But then again she’s supposed to be a former governor. The show uses the same political metric as the wheezy, airless First Monday, its CBS rival: a court polarized into permanent and “bitterly entrenched” four-four camps. “There’s no middle ground here. The fifth vote has to take sides,” intones the “liberal” justice to Field on her first day at the office. So, Field is perennially the “swing vote.” It’s as if Sandra Day O’Connor had to wake up every morning and decide whether she’s a liberal or conservative on that day.

Unlike First Monday, this version looks like the real Supreme Court. Which is extremely satisfying for the 40 of us who actually hang out there. These guys did their homework. And the day-in-the-life-of-the-court stuff—the business of hearing cases and having conferences and taking straw polls—is also accurate. There’s none of that fast-and-loose-with-the-judicial-process quality of First Monday.

Oops: We’re running again. Crashing through airports and careening down freeways. Here’s why: TheCourt avoids the sepulchral and deadly-dull speechifying of First Monday by showing us the court through the eyes of an outsider, a cravenly ambitious reporter who’s sinking fast in his job at some horrendous “online rag.” (Legal Times thinks he’s Jake Tapper.) He’s hunky Craig Bierko, and his goal, as the “sexy iconoclast” of the high-court press corps, is described as “the whole populist put-a-face-on-the-highest-court-thing.” Trapped in the cheap seats behind the legitimate reporters, Bierko writes long chatty expository pieces that no one reads. Lucky bastard has a slave/vassal though, an assistant who drives him around and carries the bags. And she’s sharp as a tack made out of Brie. Bierko’s breaking into the brassy world of TV news networks. He’s dredging up stories about the skeletons hanging between all the tasteful beige suits in Sally Field’s closet. How will this character keep digging up scandals every week, now that his big scoop is too late to derail her confirmation? (We aren’t told what the scoop is. No time, no time.)

The show features lots of TV monitors, TV cameras, shots captured on video, and computer editing. Television now mediates our TV watching. There are lots of catfights being set up among all the women over the age of 40. And the clerks? No idea who these people are yet, but they are good-looking and ideological. They’re also somewhat juvenile; at one point, Sally Field walks in on a bunch of clerks re-enacting a scene from Porky’s in her chambers. One boy seems to be pantomiming sex with a chair.

Full disclosure? I met with some of The Court’s writer/producer/creators last fall and swapped insider info for a tasty slab of fish. It was so worth it. Red wine reduction. Delicious. So, the generalized odiousness of putative online reporter Bierko notwithstanding, I approve—after all, anything to further the populist-put-a-face-on-the-highest-court project. And since the court is glacial in its daily operations, the right call was to make it about the characters instead of the issues. And, breakneck though it may be, the quadruple-speed pace works for the show. Though the real brethren may need to plug in their defibrillators to watch it.