History of the Supreme Court

Course No. 8570
Professor Peter Irons, Ph.D.,M.A., J.D.
University of California, San Diego
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Course No. 8570
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Course Overview

For more than two centuries, the Supreme Court has exerted extraordinary influence over the way we Americans live our daily lives. The Court has defined the limits of our speech and actions since its first meeting in 1790, adding to our history books names such as John Marshall, Louis Brandeis, Hugo Black, Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and many others.

Have you ever wondered what goes into shaping the Court's decisions—or the beliefs of its justices? Or how the nine justices blend divergent and often strongly conflicting philosophies to reach decisions that reflect consensus—or sometimes fail to? How even a single change in the body of the Court can alter dramatically not only the Court's ideological balance but its cooperative chemistry, as well? Or what it sounded like in the Court as some of the most important cases in our history were argued?

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.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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." x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x

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Video DVD
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  • Download 36 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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  • Download 36 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 36 lectures on 6 DVDs
  • 216-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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CD Includes:
  • 36 lectures on 18 CDs
  • 216-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 216-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Timeline

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Your professor

Peter Irons

About Your Professor

Peter Irons, Ph.D.,M.A., J.D.
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...
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Reviews

History of the Supreme Court is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 110.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from looking forward to it I'd like to give review, but the topic may take several months to get through!!!
Date published: 2019-10-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative and timely. Gave me perspective and hope for our country.
Date published: 2019-10-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from worth the time very informative; well done. Great insight including learning about really bad/racist justices
Date published: 2019-07-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Solid Course, needs updating I just finished this course. Prof Iron is excellent. Since this course 16 years old, I think it needs a 2nd Edition reflecting several more recent cases and those who now make up the court. Prof Iron provides the caveat that the course largely a consideration of landmark civil & personal rights. It would have been interesting to hear discussions involving these same justices on different topics. Did they essentially hold to similar opinions in areas where they were less philosophically and/or politically/economically vested?
Date published: 2019-07-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Well done despite the liberal bias. I would now like the same course, however, presented by an objective, nonpartisan legal historian.
Date published: 2019-07-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History A, Professor A+ You send requests for reviews quickly, I am only half way through the course. The history is interesting and well presented. Professor Peter Irons is perhaps my favorite of all presenters of the many Great Courses I have gone through over the years. All presenters are A or B, Irons is an A+
Date published: 2019-05-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Informative But Outdated I bought this course and went through it a year or so ago. I had some problems with it at the time so I let it sit and then went back through some of the lectures again recently. I have also read most of the other reviews and find that I tend to agree with many of them. I think you have to take Prof. Irons as having point of view (and everyone has one) that is conditioned by his experience. One does come to the ACLU without a liberal viewpoint. Add to that he teaches at UCSD which has a rep for being a bit far out on the left. One of the other reviewers notes, as I did, that he refers to conservative judges as "reactionary" etc. and also conditions almost every discussion of slavery/civil rights related issues by noting which judges are slave holders and thus likely to render opinions with which he disagrees. I found that if I take his background into account and filter out the left-wing slant and "progressive' approach, there is a lot of good information in the course. One of the lectures I found most interesting was about the Roe v. Wade debacle and the tortured opinion written by Justice Blackmun that managed to twist legal precedent and limited medical knowledge into a formulation that removed an important issue from democratic discussion and decision making and left a result that continues to plague political discussion today. That lecture alone is worth the price of admission. One other thing, the course is about 15 years out of date. A new course would be a good idea. Too bad Justice Scalia is not around to teach it; how about Justice Thomas?
Date published: 2019-04-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Invaluable information and fresh perspective I purchased this a while ago but never found time to sit down and immerse myself in the subject. I wish I had completed this course a long time ago. Professor Irons is an excellent speaker - never a moment of boredom or getting buried in mundane or extraneous trivia. He is sufficiently animated and sincere in his delivery. He is nonpolitical - which is a difficult task in this age of heated political rhetoric and innuendo from every direction. I finished the course today with a sincere feeling of accomplishment. I found respect for the SCOTUS that I had never had in the past. I gained an understanding of the enormous task that the justices face when researching and evaluating all aspects of critical questions, and in writing their detailed and supported opinions. This course forced me to accept the fact that there are no simple solutions to complex problems. The Constitution is a hard taskmaster - and human inclination to color one's interpretations with one's own biases and life experiences is a hard fought internal debate. America is a unique concept of freedom and equality that rests solely upon the shoulders of the men and women who interpret our foundational document embodied in the Constitution and The Bill of Rights. I gained respect for justices that I had dismissed as complete idiots in the past. I could see the evolution of the Supreme Court unfolding before my eyes. I wish this course were mandatory in all High Schools in America. I think it would help to stop the hateful speech, the biased curriculum, and the barriers to providing our children with the tools they need to become responsible American citizens who uphold and respect the laws of our nation, even when they conflict with their own agendas. This course would be an excellent choice for parents to watch with their children. I want to donate my copy to the local rural High School - these kids have so little access to quality materials. I hope they will allow the kids to watch it.
Date published: 2019-02-25
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