Radiolab Presents: More Perfect

Radiolab Presents: More Perfect

United States

How does an elite group of nine people shape everything from marriage and money, to safety and sex for an entire nation? Radiolab's first ever spin-off series, More Perfect, dives into the rarefied world of the Supreme Court to explain how cases deliberated inside hallowed halls affect lives far away from the bench.


Object Anyway  

At the trial of James Batson in 1982, the prosecution eliminated all the black jurors from the jury pool. Batson objected, setting off a complicated discussion about jury selection that would make its way all the way up to the Supreme Court. On this episode of More Perfect, the Supreme Court ruling that was supposed to prevent race-based jury selection, but may have only made the problem worse.

James Batson (L) with his mother Rose (R) (Sean Rameswaram) Joe Gutmann with his students in the mock trial courtroom built at the back of Gutmann's classroom (Sean Rameswaram)


Joe Gutmann (L) and James Batson (R) sit together in Gutmann's classroom (Sean Rameswaram)

The key links:

-The prosecutor's papers highlighting black jurors from the trial of Timothy Tyrone Foster

The key voices:

- James Batson, the original plaintiff in Batson v. Kentucky
- Joe Guttman, the prosecutor in James Batson's case
- David Niehaus, lawyer at the Jefferson County Public Defender's Office
- Jeff Robinson, director for the ACLU Center for Justice
- Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative
- Stephen B. Bright, Harvey Karp Visiting Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School
- Nancy Marder, professor of law at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law

The key cases:

- 1986: Batson v. Kentucky
- 2016: Foster v. Chatman

Kittens Kick The Giggly Blue Robot All Summer  

We tend to think of the Supreme Court justices as all-powerful guardians of the constitution, issuing momentous rulings from on high. They seem at once powerful, and unknowable; all lacy collars and black robes.

But they haven’t always been so, you know, supreme. On this episode of More Perfect, we go all the way back to the case that, in a lot of ways, is the beginning of the court we know today.

Speaking of the current court, if you need help remembering the eight justices, we've made a mnemonic device (and song) to help you out. Listen and share below! 



The key links:

- Akhil Reed Amar's forthcoming book, The Constitution Today: Timeless Lessons for the Issues of Our Era
- Linda Monk's book, The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution

The key voices:

- Linda Monk, author and constitutional scholar
- Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale
- Ari J. Savitzky, lawyer at WilmerHale

The key cases:

- 1803: Marbury v. Madison
- 1832: Worcester v. Georgia
- 1954: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1)
- 1955: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (2)

Additional music for this episode by Podington Bear.

Special thanks to Dylan Keefe and Mitch Boyer for their work on the above video.


The Imperfect Plaintiffs  

Last week, the court decided one of this term’s blockbuster cases — a case that could affect the future of affirmative action in this country. The plaintiff was Abigail Fisher, a white woman, who said she was rejected from the University of Texas because the university unfairly considered race as one of many factors when evaluating applicants. And while Fisher’s claims were the focus of the case, the story behind how she ended up in front of the Supreme Court is a lot more complicated.

Edward Blum is the director of the Project on Fair Representation (AEI)

On this episode, we visit Edward Blum, a 64-year-old “legal entrepreneur” and former stockbroker who has become something of a Supreme Court matchmaker — He takes an issue, finds the perfect plaintiff, matches them with lawyers, and works his way to the highest court in the land. He’s had remarkable success, with 6 cases heard before the Supreme Court, including that of Abigail Fisher. We also head to Houston, Texas, where in 1998, an unusual 911 call led to one of the most important LGBT rights decisions in the Supreme Court’s history.

John Lawrence (L) and Tyron Garner (R) at the 2004 Pride Parade in Houston (J.D. Doyle/Houston LGBT History) Mitchell Katine (L) introduces Tyron Garner (Middle) and John Lawrence (R) at a rally celebrating the court's decision (J.D. Doyle/Houston LGBT History)

The key links:

- The website Edward Blum is using to find plaintiffs for a case he is building against Harvard University
- Susan Carle's book on the history of legal ethics
- An obituary for Tyron Garner when he died in 2006
- An obituary for John Lawrence when he died in 2011
- Dale Carpenter's book on the history of Lawrence v. Texas
- A Lambda Legal documentary on the story of Lawrence v. Texas

The key voices:

- Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation
- Susan Carle, professor of law at the American University Washington College of Law
- Dale Carpenter, professor of Law at the SMU Dedman School of Law
- Mitchell Katine, lawyer at Katine & Nechman L.L.P. 
- Lane Lewis, chair of the Harris County Democratic Party

The key cases:

- 1896: Plessy v. Ferguson
- 1917: Buchanan v. Warley
- 1962: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Button
- 1986: Bowers v. Hardwick
- 1996: Bush v. Vera
- 2003: Lawrence v. Texas
- 2009: Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder
- 2013: Shelby County v. Holder
- 2013: Fisher v. University of Texas (1)
- 2016: Evenwel v. Abbott
- 2016: Fisher v. University of Texa

More Perfect presents: Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl  

This is the story of a three-year-old girl and the highest court in the land. The Supreme Court case Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl was a legal battle that entangled a biological father, a heart-broken couple, and the tragic history of Native American children taken from their families.

When producer Tim Howard first read about this case, it struck him as a sad, but seemingly straightforward custody dispute. But as he started talking to lawyers, historians, and the families involved in the case, it became clear that it was much more than that. Because Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl challenges parts of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, this case puts one little girl at the center of a storm of legal intricacies, Native American tribal culture, and heart-wrenching personal stakes.

A note from Jad:

"As you guys may know, our new podcast More Perfect is Radiolab’s first ever spin-off show. But I want to share something special with you: THE Radiolab episode that inspired us to launch this whole series about the Supreme Court. After we put out this episode we got hooked on the court and the kinds of stories we could tell about it. So we made More Perfect.

We reported this Radiolab story about three years ago. It’s about a little girl...but really it’s about so much more than that, too. Stay tuned to the end for an update about what has happened since."

The key links:

- An op-ed by Veronica's birth mom, Christy Maldonado, in the Washington Post
- Marcia Zug's article for Slate on the original case that went to the South Carolina Supreme Court
- Marcia Zug's article for Slate criticizing the Supreme Court ruling
- An op-ed by the New York Times Editorial Board urging action from the Supreme Court
- The official site for ICWA, the Indian Child Welfare Act

The key voices:

- Matt and Melanie Capobianco, Veronica's adoptive parents
- Dusten Brown, Veronica's biological father
- Christy Maldonado, Veronica's biological mother
- Mark Fiddler, attorney for the Capobiancos
- Marcia Zug, associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina School of Law
- Bert Hirsch, attorney formerly of the Association on American Indian Affairs
- Chrissi Nimmo, Assistant Attorney General for Cherokee Nation
- Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association
- Lori Alvino McGill, attorney for Christy Maldonado

The key cases:

- 2013: Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl

The Political Thicket  

When Chief Justice Earl Warren was asked at the end of his career, “What was the most important case of your tenure?”, there were a lot of answers he could have given. After all, he had presided over some of the most important decisions in the court’s history  cases that dealt with segregation in schools, the right to an attorney, the right to remain silent, just to name a few. But his answer was a surprise: He said, “Baker v. Carr,” a 1962 redistricting case. 

On this episode of More Perfect, we talk about why this case was so important; important enough, in fact, that it pushed one Supreme Court justice to a nervous breakdown, brought a boiling feud to a head, put one justice in the hospital, and changed the course of the Supreme Court — and the nation — forever.

Associate Justice William O. Douglas (L) and Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter (R) (Harris & Ewing Photography/Library of Congress) Top Row (left-right): Charles E. WhittakerJohn M. Harlan,William J. Brennan, Jr.Potter Stewart. Bottom Row (left-right): William O. DouglasHugo L. BlackEarl WarrenFelix FrankfurterTom C. Clark. (Library of Congress)


Associate Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Whittaker at his desk in his chambers. (Heywood Davis)

 The key links:

- Biographies of Charles Evans Whittaker, Felix Frankfurter, and William O. Douglas from Oyez
- A biography of Charles Evans Whittaker written by Craig Alan Smith
- A biography of Felix Frankfurter written by H.N. Hirsch
- A biography of William O. Douglas written by Bruce Allen Murphy
- A book about the history of "one person, one vote" written by J. Douglas Smith
- A roundtable discussion on C-SPAN about Baker v. Carr

The key voices:

Craig Smith, Charles Whittaker's biographer and Professor of History and Political Science at California University of Pennsylvania
- Tara Grove, Professor of Law and Robert and Elizabeth Scott Research Professor at William & Mary Law School
- Louis Michael Seidman, Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Constitutional Law at Georgetown Law
- Guy-Uriel Charles, Charles S. Rhyne Professor of Law at Duke Law
- Samuel Issacharoff, Bonnie and Richard Reiss Professor of Constitutional Law, NYU Law
- J. Douglas Smith, author of "On Democracy's Doorstep"
- Alan Kohn, former Supreme Court clerk for Charles Whittaker, 1957 Term
- Kent Whittaker, Charles Whittaker's son
- Kate Whittaker, Charles Whittaker's granddaughter

The key cases:

- 1962: Baker v. Carr
- 2000: Bush v. Gore
- 2016: 

Cruel and Unusual  

On the inaugural episode of More Perfect, we explore three little words embedded in the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “cruel and unusual.” America has long wrestled with this concept in the context of our strongest punishment, the death penalty. A majority of “we the people” (61 percent, to be exact) are in favor of having it, but inside the Supreme Court, opinions have evolved over time in surprising ways.

And outside of the court, the debate drove one woman in the UK to take on the U.S. death penalty system from Europe. It also caused states to resuscitate old methods used for executing prisoners on death row. And perhaps more than anything, it forced a conversation on what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

After you listen to the episode:

The key links:

The invoice that revealed the identity of Dream Pharma
The email exchanges between Arizona and California officials regarding lethal injection drugs
- Handwritten lethal injection protocols from Arkansas
An interview with Bill Wiseman, the Oklahoma state legislator who invented lethal injection in America, conducted by Scott Thompson of KOTV.

The key voices:

- Maya Foa, Director of Reprieve's Death Penalty team
- Paul Ray, State Representative, House District 13, Utah
- Robert Blecker, Professor at New York Law School, and author of, "The Death of Punishment"

The key cases:

- 1879: Wilkerson v. Utah
- 1972: Furman v. Georgia
- 1976: Gregg v. Georgia
- 2008: Baze v. Rees
- 2014: Glossip v. Gross

More Perfect is funded in part by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Charles Evans Hughes Memorial Foundation, and the Joyce Foundation.

Supreme Court archival audio comes from Oyez®, a free law project in collaboration with the Legal Information Institute at Cornell.

Special thanks to Claire Phillips, Nina Perry, Stephanie Jenkins, Ralph Dellapiana, Byrd Pinkerton, Elisabeth Semel, Christina Spaulding, and The Marshall Project


Coming Soon: More Perfect  

How does an elite group of nine people shape everything from marriage and money, to safety and sex for an entire nation? From the producers of Radiolab, More Perfect dives into the rarefied world of the Supreme Court to explain how cases deliberated inside hallowed halls affect lives far away from the bench.

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