Thursday, August 14, 2003
‘OK, Mr. Justice, Camera’s Rolling; Scene One, Take One!’
By ROGER M. GRACE
How does a TV executive go about booking an appearance on a daytime TV show by a U.S. Supreme Court justice?
That was the task Harvey Levin, who was managing editor of TV’s “Superior Court,” assigned to himself in connection with putting together a week-long tribute to the bicentenary of the U.S. Constitution, aired during the last week of February, 1987. He lined up ousted California Chief Justice Rose Bird and others to act as guest judges that week, and secured daily comments, on tape, from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.
Surely, Levin didn’t just phone Blackmun’s office and say:
“Hi, this is Harvey Levin. Listen, I’ve got an opening for a guest spot on a TV show, and I was thinking of using the judge. How’s next Thursday at 10 for him?”
Not a likely scenario. Even to this day, the Bashful Nine bar cameras at their oral arguments, and 17 years ago they were even more standoffish than now when it came to interviews.
So how did Levin swing it? Contacted at his production company where he was about to tape an episode of “Celebrity Justice,” of which he’s executive producer, Levin said he’s never told the story before.
He recounted that he boasted to Stu Billett, the executive producer of “Superior Court,” that he would line up a Supreme Court justice to provide an introduction to each of the daily episodes. Levin quoted Billett as scoffing:
“No you’re not. That’s crazy. You’re not going to get anybody from the Supreme Court.”
Undaunted, Levin telephoned the office of Chief Justice Warren Burger. He recalled:
“His assistant just shot me down and said, ‘No—and nobody on the Supreme Court will do it, so you can quit trying.”
Quit trying? Nope.
Levin knew that Blackmun couldn’t stand the chief justice. So, he said, he telephoned Blackmun’s assistant and told him what he was seeking, but added:
“I’m sure that no one’s going to do this because the chief justice said that.”
Levin explained: “I played Burger against Blackmun.”
The reverse psychology worked.
Soon after that, Levin was leading his camera crew through the corridors of the Supreme Court Building—terrain on which few reporters with cameras had trod—proceeding to the chambers of a high court jurist who was unavailable to network news shows.
“It was a thrilling experience,” Levin remarked.
He acknowledged, however, “Harry Blackmun was terrible television.”
Levin said that when Billett viewed the tapes of the justice’s remarks, he asked: “How can you come back with this?”
So blah were the jurist’s pontifications that what were intended as introductions to each episode were bumped to the ends of the shows.
Nonetheless, Levin achieved what he was told was impossible, and brought prestige to a syndicated show which he himself terms “a legal soap opera.”
Levin also had a formidable task in recruiting members and former members of appellate courts to assume the roles of judges in a scripted court show.
Alarcon recounted the phone call in which he was asked to participate in one of the shows honoring the Constitution. He said Levin’s told him they wanted “representative people.”
The judge commented:
“I knew what that meant. An Hispanic, a woman, and—who else was there?”
There was the late Bernard Jefferson, a former Court of Appeal presiding justice, who was black. Alarcon is Hispanic and there were three women: Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Mildred Lillie and Bird (both deceased) and former Ninth Circuit Judge Shirley Hufstedler.
The producers were trying to “make a point,” Alarcon said, the point being that irrespective of gender or ethnic group, “you can be on a high appellate court, if you have the merit.”
Alarcon said that “as it was presented” to him, he saw no ethical impediment to his participating. “I don’t think it is appropriate for a judge to be in a fictional portrayal of a court, ordinarily,” he noted, but explained that this was a “commemorative kind of a program.”
The jurist said he recalls hearing no reactions to his performance, remarking: “I don’t know if anybody saw it.”
(Hufstedler, secretary of education during the Carter administration and now a partner in Morrison & Foerster, said she has participated in various television programs through the years, and “they all blur now” in her memory.)
More about “Superior Court” and other courtroom simulation shows of that time period in next week’s column.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
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