Segments in this Video

Sponsors: Mr. Justice Brennan (00:19)


Sponsors: Mr. Justice Brennan

Introduction (01:19)

Justice Brennan considers the Bill of Rights the foundation of our freedoms, and is dismayed by those who call it a technicality. Bill Moyers introduces the importance of debates over the Constitution.

Supreme Court and the Constitution (00:50)

The Supreme Court decides what the Constitution means, giving shape to abstract notions. After landmark rulings in recent decades, people debate whether it has gone too far.

Brennan's Tenure (03:11)

William Brennan, the current Supreme Court's longest-serving Justice, believes judicial enforcement of Constitutional rights is the ultimate protection of freedom. Moyers reviews his influential decisions.

Limits of Majority Power (01:49)

Brennan says he did not take criticism of his controversial decisions personally; the Court must protect individual rights against an overbearing majority.

Dependence on Judicial Interpretation (01:55)

A literal reading of the Fourth Amendment would not protect people against wiretapping; the Court's interpretation does so.

Challenges to Constitutional Rights (01:39)

We have given government more power than ever before, so we need to carefully protect rights. New technology will test the Constitution's protection of privacy in new ways.

Controversial Bill of Rights, McCarthy, and Brennan (03:02)

We almost did not get a Bill of Rights, and some still oppose one of these protections. Senator McCarthy opposed Brennan's appointment.

Fifth Amendment (01:19)

The Fifth Amendment is more essential than ever as government power increases.

Heritage of Liberty and Slavery (02:30)

Our Constitution owes much to the Magna Carta. The Bill of Rights and Civil War Amendments are a kind of second Constitution. The paradoxical legacy of slavery is discussed.

Supreme Court's Role (02:01)

Read Brennan's quote that says the Court must render definitive interpretations of ambiguous texts. This is what the framers intended for the Supreme Court to do.

Judicial Independence (01:27)

The Framers insured judicial independence through lifetime appointments, allowing judges to protect minorities without reprisals from the majority.

Dissents and Court Authority (02:48)

Supreme Court Constitutional interpretations must be binding to prevent chaos. Asked if dissents raise questions about this authority, Brennan says they are designed to influence future authoritative opinions.

Death Penalty (02:50)

Cruel and Unusual has no fixed meaning; punishments prevailing at the Founding have since been struck down. Moyers counters that the Fifth Amendment recognizes the death penalty.

Justice Black on Death Penalty (00:56)

Justice Black argued that despite ambiguity in Cruel and Unusual, we know the Framers accepted the death penalty. Brennan says we should apply the Constitution's broad principles in contemporary context.

Constitution's Flexibility (02:43)

Black cites Hughes and Marshal on the Constitution's flexibility. Its clauses are adaptable to new problems.

Dignity of Man (02:10)

Brennan has called the Constitution an oration on the dignity of man. Brennan is not inserting his own moral views, but judging whether actions violate this basic premise of the Constitution.

Popular Support for Death Penalty (01:05)

Moyers asks Brennan to reconcile his view that the judge should seek the community's interpretation with his rejection of the death penalty.

Electrocution and Burning At the Stake (02:27)

Brennan explains why electrocution is the contemporary technological equivalent to burning at the stake. Moyers argues that society defines what is cruel and unusual.

Constitutional Interpretation (02:08)

Moyers argues that vague provisions invite the Supreme Court to put meaning into the Constitution rather than judge Framers' intent. Brennan emphasizes that Justices are constrained by the text.

"Who are the Framers?" (01:29)

Asked about the "clamor" to resurrect the Constitution's original meaning as interpretive standard, Brennan says the Founders disagreed among themselves.

Adaptability, Amendments and the Court (01:24)

The Constitution lays out basic principles to govern a society whatever it faced, and has gotten by with few Amendments. Critics say the Court has rushed change rather than waiting for amendments.

Constitution and Religious Faith (02:01)

Brennan is Catholic but has made decisions religious people oppose. He explains that he is bound to his oath to the Constitution.

Church and State (01:39)

Brennan downplays any role the persecution of his Catholic ancestors plays in his views on church-state separation.

School Prayer (02:10)

Brennan did not anticipate the degree of controversy over the Court's ban on school prayer. He holds that religious prayer cannot be truly non-sectarian.

Judicial and Political Questions (01:29)

Critics say when the Constitution provides little guidance, Courts should stay out, but the Court only takes cases presented to it. Brennan explains the doctrine of political questions not subject to judicial review.

Judicial Prudence (02:32)

The Court left a 1964 civil rights case alone, knowing Congress working on civil rights laws. Brennan disputes that the Court decides the limits of its own power, and that current levels of controversy are unique.

State Courts (02:28)

State courts are turning to their state Constitutions to support individual rights in response to the Supreme Court's narrowing the scope of federal protections; Brennan notes a weakening of the Exclusionary Rule.

Technicalities and the Constitution (02:07)

Moyers notes the sentiment that criminals get off on technicalities; Brennan objects to treating the Bill of Rights as a technicality. Brennan gives closing thoughts on the greatness of the Constitution.

Sponsors & Credits: Mr. Justice Brennan (01:43)

Sponsors & Credits: Mr. Justice Brennan

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Mr. Justice Brennan

Part of the Series : In Search of the Constitution
DVD Price: $79.95
DVD + 3-Year Streaming Price: $119.93
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A visit with former Supreme Court justice William J. Brennan, Jr., who has been called America’s "most unyielding defender of individual rights." Brennan served through seven presidencies and wrote close to 500 majority opinions. Time and again, he argued that the protection of individual freedom is found in judicial enforcement of constitutional rights. In the early 1960s, Brennan’s arguments turned the country’s political map upside down and changed, forever, the Court’s role in political matters. (60 minutes)

Length: 58 minutes

Item#: BVL4909

ISBN: 978-1-4213-9244-8

Copyright date: ©1987

Closed Captioned

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