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History of the Supreme Court


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.


Course Lecture Titles
  • 1. Personality and Principle
  • 2. Shaping the Constitution and the Court
  • 3. Ratification and the Bill of Rights
  • 4. John Marshall Takes Control
  • 5. Impeachment, Contract, and Federal Power
  • 6. Roger Taney Takes Control
  • 7. “A Small Pleasant-Looking Negro”
  • 8. The Civil War Amendments
  • 9. “Separate but Equal”
  • 10. Two Justices from Boston
  • 11. The Laissez-Faire Court
  • 12. “Clear and Present Danger”
  • 13. The Taft Court and the Twenties
  • 14. Wins and Losses for New Deal Laws
  • 15. “Court Packing” and Constitutional Revolution
  • 16. The New Dealers Take Control
  • 17. “Beyond the Reach of Majorities”
  • 18. Pearl Harbor and Panic
  • 19. The Supreme Court and the Communist Party
  • 20. Thurgood Marshall—Lawyer and Justice
  • 21. Five Jim Crow Schools and Five Cases
  • 22. The Hearts and Minds of Black Children
  • 23. “War Against the Constitution”
  • 24. Earl Warren—Politician to Chief Justice
  • 25. “We Beg Thy Blessings”
  • 26. “You Have the Right to Remain Silent”
  • 27. The Warren Court Reshapes the Constitution
  • 28. Earl Warren Leaves, Warren Burger Arrives
  • 29. “A Right to Privacy”
  • 30. From Abortion to Watergate
  • 31. The Court Faces Affirmative Action
  • 32. Down from the Pedestal, Out of the Closet
  • 33. Burning Flags and Burning Crosses
  • 34. Prayer and Abortion Return to the Court
  • 35. One Vote Decides Two Crucial Cases
  • 36. Looking Back and Looking Ahead

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Tags: Court, Supreme, history, History, conflicting, Warren, Marshall