Anyone happen to catch ABC’s Boston Legal last night? I’ve never watched the show, but somehow found myself gaping through an episode in which James Spader argues what turned out to be last week’s Louisiana capital rape case before an astoundingly good simulation of the current high court . They found actors who looked enough like the justices to be credible, Spader pretty much argued the brief in Kennedy , and the writers allowed an entire 15 minute segment just for his oral argument. I can’t recall another time I’ve seen anything as close to the real justices represented on prime time television, or a moment in which someone in the popular culture – outside an op/ed – really took on the Roberts Court as a collection of political actors rather than an abstract blur of black robe.
To be sure, David E. Kelly’s brief against the Roberts Court (too pro-death, too pro-business, too pro-Bush …) was more than a little overheated. The four conservative justices looked a little too smug and jowly. When Spader segued from arguing capital rape, to Bush v Gore and then the Exxon case I nearly threw a shoe at him. And when he cowed the conservatives into silence by reminding them of the court’s role as the nation’s “conscience” and its duty to the ideal of “mercy” I actually laughed out loud. Still, I am guessing ABC’s viewers learned more about the Supreme Court – how it looks and feels inside, how argument happens, how the various Justices behave, and how ideology is at least part of what they do – than they would have done in anything short of an actual visit to the court. And I can’t help but think that if more television and movies actually dealt with the court – even a fictionalized one – the public would better understand why the court matters and why elections matter.