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History of the Supreme Court

Trace the development of the Supreme Court from a body having little power to its current status as the most powerful and prestigious judicial institution in the world.
History of the Supreme Court is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 140.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Needs Updating This is a very good and largely apolitical historical account of the most significant decisions by the Supreme Court. (Dr. Irons opens by noting his significant involvement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – NAACP – and the American Civil Liberties Union – ACLU – but his political comments are brief asides and they do not affect the historical or legal analysis.) It seems to me that, as a teacher, Dr. Irons behaves like a litigator. He sets aside his personal opinions and shapes his case most effectively to communicate the facts and points of law to his audience. He does get his liberal licks in but he carefully distinguishes them as his opinions and separate from the course material. Dr. Irons takes a chronological approach to Supreme Court jurisprudence. This allows him to show the evolution of legal thought and the development of precedence. He emphasizes the formational era of Chief Justice John Marshall and the influential eras of the Civil War Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era. Although his allegiance is clearly with the liberal ideology, he is careful to present a balanced view of history. The course guide is below average by The Great Courses (TGC) standards. It is written in outline form without any graphics. It averages about four pages per lecture, a little more than half of TGC average. Its appendices include a list of all supreme court justices (now out of date), a timeline, a glossary, biographical notes, I used the video streaming version. Little value is added by the graphics; it would work equally well in the audio-only format. The course was published in 2003. Unfortunately, this material is now dated. TGC should either update this course or provide a follow-on course that addresses such developments as Obergefell vs Hodges (the right to same sex marriage), Dobbs vs. Jackson (overrule Roe vs. Wade), New York State Rifle & Pistol Association vs. Bruen (right to keep and bear arms), Alen vs. Mulligan (Alabama redistricting), Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado (religious freedom balanced against LGBTQX rights), and Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District (religious freedom and public education location). Much precedent has been established in the area of religious freedom since this course was recorded.
Date published: 2024-03-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A very enjoyable and thorough overview Excellent course. An honest and balanced treatment of a vital institution.
Date published: 2024-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thorough Review of Landmark Cases I am no lawyer. I found this course compelling and a perfect candidate if you want to learn more about US history than what you learn from traditional history books. The instructor's lectures are clear and extremely knowledgeable about the subject. A+ for Dr. Irons.
Date published: 2023-07-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gratuit course I really enjoyed that course... à lot of information and à great way to learn so much on suprem court and US history. Woukd bè really interesting to have an extension discussing thé Last years With crazy républicains naming judge without any respect for the réel unifiés state Who tried to have equilibra in court ans non Roe being turned
Date published: 2022-12-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History at its best. I am still working through this audio. The narration is clear. Professor Irons give a perfect mixture of personalities and the law without becoming overly technical. He relates each lecture to his overall theme. This is a good course for entertainment and learning.
Date published: 2022-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great series cases showing the court's evolution Professor Irons is an engaging and stimulating speaker, who shares his assessment of many diverse cases paralleling our history. The course is timely even though is is now 19 years after it was delivered. Thank you for opening our minds to the workings of this great institution!
Date published: 2022-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent history of the Supreme Court This is an excellent history of the Court. Comments by other reviews on the liberal bias of Dr. Irons may be true but he is open about what is his opinion and leaves it up to the listener to judge the case based on the facts. I think he does a superb job of relating the key cases and the Court’s decision. HEY LEARNING COMPANY: HOW ABOUT A FOLLOW UP COURSE LOOKING AT THE COURT OVER THE LAST DECADE?
Date published: 2022-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Disturbing The politicization of the Supreme Court has always been there. I find this a disappointment. This course brings great clarity to the extent political influence has shaped decisions to the detriment of its citizens and fueled conflict. It is enlightening
Date published: 2021-08-15
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The Supreme Court has defined the boundaries of our speech and actions since its first meeting in 1790, adding to our history books names such as Justices Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall, and Warren Burger, and landmark trials including Roe v. Wade and Dred Scott v. John Sandford. You will have a front-row seat with Professor Peter Irons as you hear lawyers actually arguing before the Court, and examine the themes of consensus, continuity, and diversity that have shaped the Court through its history.


Peter Irons

Most of the conflicts that reach the Supreme Court reflect the tremendous diversity in American society. That diversity is part of the nation's strength, of course, as people of different backgrounds and values work together to achieve common goals.


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 Boston College Law School and the University of Massachusetts. He has been a visiting professor at several law schools and served as the Raoul Wallenberg Distinguished Visiting Professor of Human Rights at Rutgers University in 1988. A widely respected authority on the Supreme Court and constitutional litigation, Professor Irons wrote and edited 12 books, including Jim Crow's Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision. His books have won an unprecedented five ìSilver Gavelî awards from the American Bar Association for their contributions to ìpublic understanding of the American legal system.î Professor Irons received Outstanding Teaching Awards from three of the UCSD colleges. Professor Irons is also an active civil rights and liberties lawyer, and belongs to several state and federal bars, including the United States Supreme Court.

By This Professor

Personality and Principle

01: 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....

34 min
Shaping the Constitution and the Court

02: 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....

30 min
Ratification and the Bill of Rights

03: 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....

30 min
John Marshall Takes Control

04: 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....

30 min
Impeachment, Contract, and Federal Power

05: 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....

31 min
Roger Taney Takes Control

06: 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....

30 min

07: "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....

30 min
The Civil War Amendments

08: 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....

30 min

09: "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....

31 min
Two Justices from Boston

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....

30 min
The Laissez-Faire Court

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....

30 min

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....

30 min
The Taft Court and the Twenties

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....

30 min
Wins and Losses for New Deal Laws

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."...

29 min

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....

30 min
The New Dealers Take Control

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....

30 min

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....

31 min
Pearl Harbor and Panic

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....

30 min
The Supreme Court and the Communist Party

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....

30 min
Thurgood Marshall-Lawyer and Justice

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....

30 min
Five Jim Crow Schools and Five Cases

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....

30 min
The Hearts and Minds of Black Children

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....

30 min

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....

30 min
Earl Warren-Politician to Chief Justice

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....

30 min

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....

30 min

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....

30 min
The Warren Court Reshapes the Constitution

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....

30 min
Earl Warren Leaves, Warren Burger Arrives

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....

30 min

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....

31 min
From Abortion to Watergate

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....

30 min
The Court Faces Affirmative Action

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....

31 min
Down from the Pedestal, Out of the Closet

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....

30 min
Burning Flags and Burning Crosses

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....

31 min
Prayer and Abortion Return to the Court

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....

30 min
One Vote Decides Two Crucial Cases

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....

30 min
Looking Back and Looking Ahead

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....

31 min