“Sandra Day O’Connor–The First”

For almost 200 years, the United States Supreme Court was a male bastion. In PBS’s American Experience: “Sandra Day O’Connor: The First” we see Sandra Day O’Connor become the first woman Supreme Court Justice.   She is remembered for being the critical swing vote on cases involving this country’s most controversial issues, including race, gender and reproductive rights — and for casting the decisive vote in Bush v. Gore.  Her riveting–often unexpected– family and career trajectory are explored in this timely biographical portrait. 

Born in 1930 in El Paso, Texas, O’Connor grew up on  the second largest  cattle ranch in Arizona. Learning to ride a horse across that vast ranch, change a flat tire, and herd cattle, the pre-teen “never got the message that there were limits to what she could accomplish.”  A brilliant student, she entered Stanford University at the age of sixteen. 

Although O’Connor went on to graduate at the top of her Stanford Law School class (one of only four female students),  no law firms interviewed her. While her fellow classmate and future husband, John O’Connor (whom she married in 1952) thrived in a successful law firm, Sandra was resigned to set up her own law office to offer her legal services to anyone who entered on a walk-in basis:  mostly bankruptcy and small claims clients.  From this unassuming start, O’Connor moved to city, then state legal offices.  Eventually nominated to fill a vacant Arizona Senate seat, she drew the attention of the state’s Republican power broker,   US Senator Barry Goldwater.

Fulfilling his campaign promise to appoint the most qualified woman to the high court, and in order to appease the educated white female Republican voters the party had fear of losing, Reagan nominates O’Connor.  He expected a modest unassuming Supreme Court justice. She was considered a safe bet and  was unanimously confirmed by the Senate (99-0). Surprisingly, the only objection to her nomination came from a burgeoning and increasingly powerful faction of Republican conservatives, led by Jerry Falwell,  who wanted to restore “family values” to America.

O’Connor would soon defy the suggestion that she would modestly defer to her male colleagues.  She approached each case with meticulous care and attention, and with the unshakeable  conviction that the role of the Court was to provide a limited check on the powers of government, not to legislate changes in current law.  Social change was to be dealt with by the legislature, not the courts. 

O’Connor emerged as the Supreme Court’s   crucial swing vote on the issues that mattered most to Americans.  As a result, the Supreme Court was nicknamed “O’Connor’s Court” since her vote was determinative. Yet she often wrote concurring opinions that limited the reach of the majority, interpreting most cases very narrowly. Hers was often the voice that spoke for the court. 

The only woman on the court for 12 years until Ruth Bader Ginsburg (see May 21, 2018 review: RBG–Truth to Power) was appointed by President Clinton in 1993, O’Connor was ecstatic at the confirmation:  “We just became two of the nine justices and it was just such a welcomed change, it was great.” In 1992 (before Ginsburg joined the Court) O’Connor served as the swing vote that reaffirmed  Roe v. Wade, despite the Republican push to overturn it (Planned Parenthood vs. Casey). 

In 2006 we see another upheaval for O’Connor.  Her husband, rapidly declining from Alzheimer’s,  compelled  her decision to retire earlier than expected at the age of 75. Her biographer, Evan Thomas,  writes that O’Connor confided to a friend, “John gave up his position in Phoenix to come with me [to Washington] so now I am giving up my job to take care of him.”

A glaring omission  in this American Experience production is the lack of coverage of  the impact of O’Connor’s decision.  She told her biographer that she sorely regretted early retirement: “It was the biggest mistake, the dumbest thing I ever did.”  Watching the succeeding judges, particularly Sam Alito, whittle away at her legacy greatly dismayed her as she came to conclude that the Republican Party she so dearly loved was no more. Her decision to leave at the peak of her influence and ability is, in this American Experience episode, tragic.

A woman of her times, raised in a culture in which she overcame nearly insurmountable obstacles, is an eye-opener.  These obstacles occurred almost half a century ago but seem persistent today. 

Highly compelling glimpse into a remarkable legal mind, jurist,  and political strategist.

Note:  To this day Sandra Day O’Connor is the only Supreme Court justice with experience in all three branches of government  (executive:  state assistant attorney general; legislative:  Arizona state senator and first woman speaker of the state senate; and judicial:  Arizona State Court of Appeals),

Availability: PBS American Experience (streaming)

“Guilt”–A Hit-and-Run

Guilt is a four-episode Masterpiece Theater mini-series, a darkly sinister and acerbic Scottish thriller about two Edinburgh brothers who leave a wedding drunk and eager to get home. We see the elegant lawyer Max (Mark Bonnar of “Shetland”) and his ne’er-do-well younger brother Jake hit an elderly man who steps in front of Max’s car.  Jake (Jamie Sives) is driving because Max thinks his brother is less inebriated than he is.

Jake wants to report the accident to the police, but Max is concerned about his professional reputation so they agree to cover up the hit-and-run by dragging the old man back into his house, positioning him to look as if he died of natural causes.

Max is very clever with the cover-up, having knowledge of what constitutes evidentiary material.  So, luck appears to be on their side. But then Angie (Ruth Bradley), the only living relative of the old man, shows up and begins to ask questions.

Nervous about the subterfuge, Jake wants to come clean, but Max will have none of it.  Reassuring his younger brother that he has always had his best interests at heart, Max convinces Jake that he will be safe with his older brother in control. But there are no secrets kept.

A nosy neighbor, a newly sober detective, and Angie’s change of heart all add to the suspense–can the cover up be sustained?  Will the two brothers face their own reckoning as the lies of the past and the crimes of the present come back to haunt and possibly destroy them?  For Jake–the man-child whose record shop was bought by his brother to help him out–the guilt over the hit-and-run gets more intense.   Jake dreams of a life with Angie, far removed from his brother’s shadow.  For Max, guilt is what the evidence reveals.  If there is insufficient evidence to convict, then they’re not guilty, whether a crime was committed or not.

Guilt is a four-hour guilty pleasure for those viewers who love a good mystery with lots of subplots. At times–particularly when a new character pops up on screen–the viewer is jostled trying to figure out where he or she belongs in the story.  Full of surprises –cannot mention all the characters for that reason–this is quite a chilling portrait of betrayal and brotherly love.

Highly recommend!

Availability:  PBS streaming (Masterpiece Theater)

“Coda”– A Song from the Heart

In this unusual introduction into the Deaf world, Coda features a high school student, Ruby Rossi (British newcomer, Emilia Jones), who is in love with music.  Trying out for the choir, she learns that a monumental decision will force her to leave her deaf parents, Frank (Troy Kotsur), and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant).  As the only hearing member of the family (CODA=Child of Deaf Adults), she is the communicator and interpreter for their struggling fishing business in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

How does a hearing child raised by deaf parents acquire speaking skills, and navigate school with students who do not understand what her life is like straddling two cultures:  Deaf and hearing?  That is the main theme of Coda, yet laced with humor and the usual teenage angst towards parents. . . and then some. A hilarious early scene has Ruby accompany her parents to the doctor’s office where she translates, via ASL, her father’s symptoms.  He signs that his “nuts are on fire” and scrunches his hands into fists, his fingers like crabs clawing into his skin. The diagnosis? Ruby has to sign “jock itch.”  The treatment?  No sex for two weeks.  Frank then asks his daughter to respond to the doctor for him:  “But I can’t.  Don’t you see how hot my wife is?”  Ruby is mortified, but the physical comedy is even more uproarious because of the sign language, so visual the viewer doesn’t need to understand ASL.

Ruby also experiences her first possible chance at love with Miles (Ferdie Walsh-Peelo), the student assigned to sing a duet with her for the school concert.  This subplot is rather weak and distracting.

Dreaming of a career as a singer, Ruby faces challenges practicing for an audition to win a scholarship to Boston’s Berklee School of Music.  The choir teacher, Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez), recognizes her talent, empathizes with her family’s needs, but nevertheless reminds Ruby of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Particularly noteworthy are moments of poignancy, particularly between Ruby and her mother and separately, with her father that are universal but also specific to Deaf culture. Because her parents will never experience the sound of Ruby’s exquisite voice, the scene between Frank and Ruby, where he tries to understand the timbre of her voice and resulting talent, is exceptionally touching.

A very heartwarming glimpse of Deaf culture, without becoming unforgivably saccharine, in no small part is due to the gifted actors, especially Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, and Troy Kotsur.

Availability:  Apple+

Note:   Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant are deaf actors. The French movie upon which Coda is based–La Famille Bélier–controversially cast hearing actors for all major roles.