PBS: The Supreme Court

Prof. Kobylka helps unravel the mysteries of the highest court

What award-winning Professor Joseph F. Kobylka has been doing for students at SMU for 20 years, he will do for people across America Jan. 31 and Feb. 7 at 8 p.m. (CST), when PBS television airs its groundbreaking series, The Supreme Court.

Prof. Kobylka teaching about the U.S. Supreme Court.
See trailers for the series.

Few people in America understand the U. S. Supreme Court and its undercurrents as well as Kobylka, a political science professor whose insights and explanations help navigate viewers through the four-part documentary that examines the immense power and influence the court exerts on our daily lives.

“What I do for the series is what I try to do for students in my constitutional law and judicial politics classes: paint a picture of continuity and change, and suggest alternative explanations for the make up of the judicial-constitutional canvass,” said Kobylka.

The presidency and Congress are familiar subjects, but no television series has ever fully profiled the inner workings of the court.  Produced by Thirteen/WNET New York, the series examines the justices’ temperaments, passions, deeply held personal beliefs, and life stories.  The series also explores the dramatic stories of the people whose cases have come before the court, as well as the often controversial rulings that impact all Americans.

“This series attempts to give the court something of its due,” Kobylka said.  “It traces significant elements of the court’s development and contributions to constitutional development over the 210-plus years of its existence.  It is, obviously, impossible to give a complete and detailed history of the Court on four hours of television, but the series is organized around a few ‘judicial giants,’ and weaves from their stories a narrative of the Court’s contributions to our constitutional understanding and governance.”

The series has companion interactive websites for educators – by PBS and by corporate sponsor MetLife – and for the public that touch on themes in the series.  In addition, Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, has written a companion volume to the series, The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America

"Many see the Court as a monolithic institution removed from the volatility of everyday life,” said Jody Sheff, executive producer of the series. “But in this series we lift the curtains and discover the personalities and power-plays of those mysterious figures on the high bench. And we explore the dramatic stories of the individuals whose cases have come before the court to shape the laws of our land."

Rob Rapley, who produced two of the series’ episodes, said he recruited Kobylka for the series after learning – through Google – that he had won numerous teaching awards.

“I thought that if students liked him, our audience would as well,” Rapley said. “I think that we originally spoke about John Marshall and the early Court, and it was immediately clear that he was exactly what we were looking for. In our subsequent conversations it became apparent he could speak about almost any period in the Court’s history with authority and make it all fascinating.”

Conference room where the justices deliberate.

Kobylka is completing a biography on Justice Harry A. Blackmun – The Judicial Odyssey of Harry A. Blackmun – due for publication in summer 2008 from the University of Virginia Press. A recipient of several SMU research grants and fellowships, Kobylka has also won numerous teaching and service awards since joining the SMU faculty in 1983, including the Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor in 2001, the Deschner Award (1984), Rotunda Outstanding Professor (1986, 1993, 1995, 2002), the Golden Mustang (1990), the Willis M. Tate Award (1991), and Godbey Author’s Award (1992).

The Teaching Company recently published a series of lectures by Kobylka, “The Cycles of American Political Thought.” He also has published three books – The Politics of Obscenity (Greenwood, 1990), Public Interest Law: An Annotated Bibliography (Garland, 1992), and The Supreme Court and Legal Change: Abortion and the Death Penalty (University of North Carolina Press, 1992).

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