The Supreme Court is front and center in the news thanks to Judge Amy Coney Barrett, so we decided to take a look at the best films featuring the Supreme Court. All but three — "First Monday in October," "The Pelican Brief," and "Swing Vote" — are based on real cases.
These are listed by date of release.
"The Magnificent Yankee" (1950)
This is a biographical film of a judicial giant, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who sat as an associate Supreme Court justice in the early days of the 20th century.
Holmes was a strong protector of the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of expression. He wrote the opinion in a case that outlined an exception to freedom of speech in Schenck v. United States, a 1919 case that held that speech that creates a "clear and present danger" is unprotected. One hundred years later, that phrase is still in use today.
"The Magnificent Yankee" was later made into a 1965 Hallmark Hall of Fame made-for-TV movie, but the original black-and-white film is the best.
"Gideon's Trumpet" (1980)
This tells the story of the events leading up to the landmark 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright, which held that the Sixth Amendment requires states to provide counsel for defendants in criminal cases if they cannot otherwise afford it.
Despite being a TV movie, "Gideon's Trumpet" had a stellar cast, including Henry Fonda as the indigent defendant Clarence Gideon, Jose Ferrer as Associate Justice Abe Fortas, and John Houseman as Chief Justice Earl Warren.
"First Monday in October" (1981)
This is a comedy-drama depicting a fictional appointment of the first woman to the Supreme Court. Coincidentally, the very year of the film's release, then-President Ronald Reagan appointed, and the Senate confirmed, Sandra Day O'Connor, the actual first woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
The film highlights the comedically raucous relationship between the new female justice, a staunch conservative played by Jill Clayburgh, and an ultra-liberal justice played by Walter Matthau. Matthau died in 2000 and Clayburgh 10 years later, but they left us a delightful film.
"The Pelican Brief" (1993)
A legal thriller based upon a John Grisham novel of the same name, "The Pelican Brief" begins with the brutal assassination of two Supreme Court justices. Meanwhile, a young law student, played by Julia Roberts, has uncovered the illegal activity that prompted the murders and prepares a brief detailing the conspiracy.
To her it was just a shot on the dark — a wild guess. But it turned out to be spot on.
She goes underground when she witnesses yet another murder — one in which she was the intended victim — and works out the rest of the puzzle after teaming up with an ambitious reporter.
"The People vs. Larry Flynt" (1996)
Although this film covers Flynt's life from his humble Kentucky beginnings through his founding of an adult men's periodical, it's primarily based on the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, a First Amendment freedom of speech case.
Televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr. sued the magazine for a parody it published depicting him as an incestuous drunk. In an 8-0 decision, the high court held that because Falwell was a public figure and a reasonable person could not have taken the parody seriously, it was protected speech.
The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, including one for Woody Harrelson as best actor for his portrayal of Larry Flynt.
"Swing Vote" (1999)
This film imagines that the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, which held that a pregnant woman had a constitutionally-protected right to abort her child, was overturned the previous year in a narrow 5-4 decision.
Andy Garcia plays Joseph Kirkland, a newly confirmed Supreme Court justice, when the court is confronted with a first degree murder case arising out of the court's previous decision.
The other eight justices were evenly divided on the previous year's decision to reverse Roe, making Kirkland the swing vote, and therefore under intense pressure from both sides on abortion.
"Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight" (2013)
This film depicts the Supreme Court case of Clay v. United States, arising out of heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali's refusal to report for induction into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War after he was drafted.
The film was based on the book "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America." Ali, born Cassius Clay, claimed to be a conscientious objector.
It offers a behind-the-scenes look at how the justices reached their decision in this hot-button case.
This is a political thriller depicting the real-life confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas. Just like Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings, Thomas' devolved from a discussion of the nominee's judicial philosophy to unsubstantiated claims of sexual misconduct.
"Confirmation" received two Writers Guild Awards and was nominated for two Emmys as well as two Critics Choice Awards. In 1991 when the Senate Judiciary Committee held the Thomas confirmation hearings, then-Sen. Joe Biden was the committee's chairman.
This depicts the Supreme Court's landmark 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia, and the events that led up to it.
The case stemmed from the interracial marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving, who were sentenced to a prison term for marrying outside their race. The court held that statutes banning interracial marriages violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Another biographical film, "Marshall" tells the story of Thurgood Marshall, and his rise from the humblest beginnings to become the first black Supreme Court Justice of the United States.
The film concentrates on one of the cases he took on early in his career, State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell. This was a 1940 case in which a black chauffeur was accused of raping his employer, a wealthy white woman.
"On the Basis of Sex" (2018)
Here's a timely film. It was based on the early cases taken up by Ruth Bader Ginsburg before she became a Supreme Court justice.
It begins from her days as a Harvard Law student, her first job as a law professor, and describes her first case, an appeal of the denial of tax benefits to a man on the basis of sex. After winning that appeal in the Circuit Court she co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Like "On the Basis of Sex," this is a biographical film on the life and times of the late-Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman elevated to the Supreme Court.
"RBG" covers her entire life, from her birth in Brooklyn, N.Y., her marriage to Martin Ginsburg, her specialty in arguing sex discrimination cases, her appointment to the high court and her eventual image as a pop culture icon.
The film won a Television Academy Honors Award and a Primetime Emmy.
"Reversing Roe" (2018)
This is a documentary film that analyzes state abortion laws and their efforts to chip away at Roe v. Wade. It's based on TV news clips and interviews with activists on all sides of the issue — pro-life, pro-choice, and those who want to see some restrictions to the procedure.
Eye For Film reviewed "Reversing Roe" and found that "Covering a lot of ground in its 99 minute runtime, the film is a good introduction for anyone struggling to grasp the mechanisms involved in recent political and judicial dealings relating to this issue."
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