History of the Supreme Court

Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great lectures in clear language, but needs update Great lectures. But these lectures were published in 2003. By now, end of 2020, an update is sorely needed.
Date published: 2020-11-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly Informative, a Pleasure to Listen To I’d like to note that many of the critical reviews raise excellent points, in particular about the types of cases left out. I think the Teaching Company’s recent spate of very focused, and excellently presented, courses on law probably go a significant way toward addressing some of these issues. Whatever its shortcomings, I was driven to rank this a 5-star course. I learned an immense amount and it was a pleasure to listen to. It’s the kind of course that you can sit down and takes notes on as well as listen to while you cook. I’m sorry to use the cliche, but Prof Irons brings the history of the Court “to life.” He makes it a good story. Once you’ve digested its content, you may look back and reflect on what it doesn’t cover and whether there are perspectives left out. But you’ll be doing that reflection from a highly informed place.
Date published: 2020-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Lecturer Clear concise. Outstanding delivery and coverage of the supreme court up to 2002. Please have him add lectures for coverage through 2020.
Date published: 2020-07-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Our Federal Legal System I find this course full of interesting information about the history of our federal legal system. It fills in "holes" of my knowledge of our American history. The lecturer is great at presenting the information in an interesting way, and is careful to differentiate between historical facts and his personal opinions. Unfortunately it quits well short of the present day Supreme Court--it needs to be extended to the present day.
Date published: 2020-07-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Review of History of Supreme Court This was my first great courses experience and it has exceeded my expectations for the great courses series. I last studied the Supreme court in 1968 in a wonderful undergraduate course that was equalled by the Great course for many of the same reasons. Both experiences humanized the history of the court with detailed biographies on both the head justices, the composition of their court members and the political and social contexts of the times in which the selected cases and topics are covered. The Teaching guide wonderfully summarizes key learning points. Professor Iron is a brilliant lecturer whose own experiences as a lawyer are appropriated inserted into the story telling. Excellent use of audio excerpts of court arguments and biographic sketches of key plaintiffs in these cases... A wonderful enriching experience.. Everything I could ask for from an audio lecture series!
Date published: 2020-07-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Biased Early in the course, Professor Irons identifies his bias as an unapologetic liberal. A true honest scholar would provide this as a disclaimer intended to warn the reader/observer that the presentation will be biased. But like most academic scholars, Prof Irons does not view his bias as a problem, but rather as evidence of his adherence to truth, as he views his biased perspective as evidence of truth. Subsequently, the entire course present the "history" of the Supreme Court as "conservatives are bad, liberals are good." But I nevertheless recommend this course as there are few comprehensive histories of the Supreme Court. The professor is an erudite and articulate lecturer. But the viewer needs to be warned: NOTE THE BIAS.
Date published: 2020-05-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Logically & Effectively Presented Course This course provided me with an excellent overview of the role the Supreme Court has played in reflecting and framing American society. The presentation is engaging and logical. A review of key points was routinely made which assists in retention of those points. As a political moderate, I found the course content to be evenhanded in its coverage of the cases, and when the instructor offered personal opinion, the listener was alerted beforehand. Overall, one of the best courses I've listened to.
Date published: 2020-04-05
Rated 2 out of 5 by from More Constitution than Supreme Court This course does cover the Supreme Court but the emphasis seems to be more Constitution. The first 2 lectures have nothing to do with the Supreme Court. If I wanted a history on the ratification process in 1787 I would have listened to a Constitution course. By Lecture 5, still no mention of terms like "stare decisis" or "jurisprudence". No history of colonial British Courts, no mention of or of Blackstone. The professor keeps using terms like"today's court" This whole class seems like it was written 20 years ago. If you know absolutely nothing about the Supreme Court this course might be for you. Otherwise skip it.
Date published: 2020-04-03
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Personality and Principle
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....

34 min
Shaping the Constitution and the Court
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....

30 min
Ratification and the Bill of Rights
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....

30 min
John Marshall Takes Control
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....

30 min
Impeachment, Contract, and Federal Power
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....

31 min
Roger Taney Takes Control
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....

30 min
"A Small Pleasant-Looking Negro"
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....

30 min
The Civil War Amendments
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....

30 min
"Separate but Equal"
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....

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
"Clear and Present Danger"
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
"Court Packing" and Constitutional Revolution
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
"Beyond the Reach of Majorities"
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
"War Against the Constitution"
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
"We Beg Thy Blessings"
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
"You Have the Right to Remain Silent"
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
"A Right to Privacy"
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
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.


Boston University, Harvard Law School


University of California, San Diego

About Peter Irons

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.

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