Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Taunya Lovell Banks
is Jacob A. France Professor of Equality Jurisprudence, University of Maryland School of Law


Read other reviews:
Michael Asimow
Chris Corcos
Rob Waring
Paul Joseph
First Monday web site
Internet Movie Database
New York Lawyer
Corpus Christi Caller-Times

CBS press release
Christian Science Monitor




Pseudo-reality scenes are entertaining, but they may not be appropriate in a drama dealing with a prestigious and highly valued governmental institution like the Court, especially at a time when that institution is still struggling to overcome public perceptions about its political partisanship.

Feature article

First Monday Is No West Wing

by Taunya Lovell Banks

Does the success of the television series West Wing, or the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore, explain CBS's new series First Monday? Perhaps, the Court's highly publicized, but arguably inappropriate and (some argue) unconstitutional inter-meddling with the 2000 presidential election explains why media moguls at CBS believe that a television series about the U.S. Supreme Court is a marketable mid-season replacement.

At this point a disclaimer is warranted. I have never been a clerk for the United States Supreme Court, so I do not have any insider information about the workings of the Court. I know several former clerks, but after reading preliminary reviews of the show, all consciously avoided viewing First Monday. They even declined my offer to loan them my tape of the show.

A dramatic program about the Supreme Court is an interesting concept, a good vehicle for airing controversial issues facing the Court. But CBS's offering lacks the gravitas of a program like West Wing, which airs similar issues while consistently presenting the Office of the President with respectful decorum, even when President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) comes across as a bit silly. Discounting several well-publicized inaccuracies about Court practice and procedure (appellate judges do not question litigants or witnesses; litigants do not sit at the counsel table during oral arguments; the justices do not gather in a circle before oral argument like some football or basketball team) as dramatic license, First Monday fails miserably to capture the solemnity of the United States Supreme Court.

First Monday starts off a bit like the 1981 film, First Monday in October, only the new justice is Joseph Novelli (Joe Mantegna), not a woman, Justice Ruth Hagadorn Loomis (Jill Clayburgh). All similarities end, however, when Justice Novelli (characterized as a moderate liberal, but perhaps more of a libertarian version of Justice Scalia) comes to his chamber in bedroom slippers. It is a bit crude in parts. Even non-lawyers must have cringed when Justice Esther Weisenberg (the Justice Ginsburg character?) confides to Novelli that she "wet her panties" when she sat in on her first oral argument!

It may be unfair to try to match First Monday's justices with contemporary Supreme Court justices. The show's creator and executive producer, Donald Bellisario, concedes that he went out of the way to make Justice Jerome Morris (James McEachin), "the African American" justice, not sound philosophically like Clarence Thomas. This was probably both a commercial and political decision. Imagine the reaction of the NAACP to a Clarence Thomas character on prime time television! Nevertheless, there are some reference to activities, like the Chief Justice Brankin's penchant for football, that remind us of former justices.

Only one of the two cases that form the first show's focal point raises a constitutional issue. The writers, obviously, were aware of the Court's split decision in a 1989 case, Stanford v. Kentucky. The Stanford case held that executing juveniles does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, so the writers frame the death penalty issue as an underlying issue. The actual claim is that the execution of a juvenile death row prisoner after his successful brush with a lightning bolt violates the Eighth Amendment.

There were a few glimmers of good writing, like the nice symmetry between the opening and closing scenes. In the opening scene lightning (natural electricity) strikes, but does not kill the prisoner and causes the telephones to fail. Near the end of the show the prisoner is executed by man-made electricity because lightning causes the telephones to fail, preventing Novelli's clerk from notifying the prison that the Justice has issued a stay of execution. But these little gems are few and far between.

The second case involves a transgendered immigrant seeks asylum claim. Given Congress' plenary power over immigration, the issue in this case is simply a matter of statutory interpretation. INS has granted asylum to immigrants who claim prosecution in their home countries because of their homosexuality. Unfortunately, the second issue is played for laughs when the Court's questioning of the petitioner (something that never happens in real life) discloses that the petitioner is really a transvestite!

At times the first episode of First Monday seems like a semi-serious version of Fox's low-brow but highly successful comedy series Ally McBeal. Even Novelli's conservative law clerk Miguel's social encounter with a transgendered attorney sounds suspiciously like a similar Ally McBeal plot involving one of the firm's partners. Often First Monday seems not to know whether to take itself seriously. Good creative writers would go a long way to improving the show.

Another troubling aspects of the show was a currently fashionable pseudo-reality cameo scene. Blurring the line between fiction and reality, like the Washington party scene in the film Traffic, real-life lawyer, Barry Scheck, and conservative radio talk show host, Dennis Prager, argue about the merits of the death penalty case on Curve Ball, a thinly disguised version of the CNN program Hard Ball. Pseudo-reality scenes, like those in First Monday and Traffic, uncritically combine politicalized information bites with entertainment for commercial ends.

Granted, often pseudo-reality scenes are entertaining, but they may not be appropriate in a drama dealing with a prestigious and highly valued governmental institution like the Court, especially at a time when that institution is still struggling to overcome public perceptions about its political partisanship. A good show about the Supreme Court would be helpful in conveying the complexities of the Court and explaining the importance of the Court as an institution.

Sadly, First Monday is no West Wing. It is more like the short-lived Comedy Channel's comedy about the president, That's My Bush!. Hopefully, the consistently bad reviews given the first show will cause CBS to either rework First Monday, or pull the show. If subsequent shows of First Monday are as bad as the first, I may reprogram my Tivo!

Chat rooms:


Posted January 22, 2002

Would you like to comment on this article? Please submit your comments here.

 Top of page

 Home | Silver Screen | Small Screen | News & Views