Supreme Court hits prime time, but verdict not in

A Florida death-row inmate is nearly struck by lightning when forced to remain outside in the exercise yard during a violent thunderstorm.

To avoid his appointment with "Old Sparky," Florida's electric chair, the condemned man's lawyers ask the US Supreme Court to set aside his death sentence on grounds that electrocuting him after such a close call would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Thus begins the pilot episode of "First Monday," a drama series (premièring tonight on CBS) that seeks to offer a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most mysterious institutions in American government: the Supreme Court.

Never mind that real high-court justices would find laughable an appeal that seeks Eighth Amendment protection against the byproduct of a storm cloud.

Never mind that one of the law clerks threatens to resign his coveted post merely

because his boss disagreed with him on the outcome of a case.

Never mind the distortions and occasional errors. The show's creators emphasize that the program is neither a documentary nor a constitutional-law seminar.

Rather, it is entertainment, a form of dramatic fiction that seeks to capitalize on America's growing fascination with the high court - particularly following the justices' intervention in the 2000 presidential election.

Bush v. Gore gave the public a high-stakes, emotional dispute that divided the nation against itself. More important, it converted the justices in the minds of many Americans into either heroes or villains. It put a human face on what had been the high temple of dull.

"We had a tremendous focus for a short time on the Supreme Court and how it operates, but we never learned what really went on behind the scenes," says Laura Krugman Ray, a law professor at Widener University in Delaware who has studied the portrayal of Supreme Court justices in novels, drama, and film.

Now, the question is whether an hour-long television drama can re-create - week after week - the sense of peril or promise that kept much of the nation perched on the edge of their seats during Bush v. Gore.

CBS isn't alone in attempting to convert this wave of public interest into ratings. Rival network ABC is developing its own judicial drama called "The Court," starring Sally Field as a Supreme Court justice.

Some analysts believe that the template for success is NBC's hit series "West Wing," an inside look at a fictional presidential staff. But there is a big difference in dramatic possibilities between the White House and the Supreme Court, some analysts warn.

"The nice thing about 'West Wing' is that you can bring in the press and world events and make it happen in a hurried-up pace. But the Supreme Court does nothing in a hurry. It is going to be like watching paint dry," says Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and co-author of the 1998 book "Prime Time Law."

Others are more optimistic. Paul Joseph, Professor Jarvis's co-author of "Prime Time Law," says the talent of the script writers will be critical. "Sometimes good drama and good law can go together," says Mr. Joseph, who is also a law professor at Nova Southeastern. "My hope is that in finding an audience for good drama, they will give us enough quality presentation of legal issues that the show will present something essentially true about how the court works and what kinds of issues it explores."

In some ways, the Supreme Court functions as a jury for the entire nation. Many of the hot-button issues of the day percolate up through lower courts until they reach the nine justices. Then, through a highly secretive process of debate, bargain, and sometimes horse-trading, a legal dispute is transformed into something approaching justice.

At least some drama must be inherent in that process. But even so, it happens with all the speed of a glacier - not exactly the pace of engaging television.

Furthermore, when cases are presented to the high court, they are presented by lawyers using highly technical terms. Although the justices ask the lawyers questions, there are no witnesses, no cross-examination, and very little opportunity for surprises.

"When you get to an appellate court, all the life of a case has been drained out of it," says Jarvis. "You can't have Perry Mason stand up and say, 'You really did it, didn't you?' What makes courtroom cases so compelling doesn't exist at the Supreme Court."

He adds, "What is the drama in watching as the clerks carry draft opinions back and forth between the justices' chambers?"

Still, one intriguing aspect of "First Monday" is that it focuses on the newest justice, Joseph Novelli, played by Joe Mantegna. He sits on a sharply divided court, and it is up to him to cast the tie-breaking vote. In effect, he becomes a court of one and must carefully weigh all sides of an issue.

Some analysts say such an approach is welcome relief from the talking heads on many news shows, who, if nothing else, prove how divided and quarrelsome the nation is on crucial issues. In contrast, Justice Novelli - even if he is fictional - could help demonstrate the potential for wisdom and honor in compromise.

"It might be healthy," says Joseph, "to think about some of these issues as being more complex than 'I'm right, you're wrong.' "

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