Two networks developing shows about the high court

Wednesday, April 11th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ One thing is certain about two planned television series set in the halls and chambers of the Supreme Court: This will not be reality TV.

Both shows, one in development for ABC, the other for CBS, are ensemble dramas that promise a peek behind the court's heavy red curtains and into the lives of the nine justices and their staffs.

Assuming no one will watch an hour of people reading, which the justices and their small cadre of law clerks do a lot of, the plots will have to be a little spicier than day-to-day reality.

``What they do is stunningly boring in real life,'' said UCLA law school professor Michael Asimow, who has studied entertainment industry depictions of lawyers and courts. ``Even though the institution deals with very big issues, nothing very exciting ever happens.''

He predicts the shows will look like legal soap operas where the characters' sex lives and personal problems get at least equal billing with constitutional law.

In real life, the court prides itself on decorum and tradition _ coats and ties for men in the courtroom, please, and absolutely no cell phones. It is a long way from Hollywood in more ways than distance.

A few skeletons have escaped the court closet over the years, such as the inconvenient fact that Justice Robert Jackson happened to be at his secretary's apartment when he died in 1954, but the court is unusual in Washington for keeping its secrets well.

Accounts of petty rivalries and power plays in the 1979 book ``The Brethren'' horrified the justices and many of their admirers. The book said that as a new justice in 1975, John Paul Stevens regarded then-Chief Justice Warren Burger as inept and sneaky. Then-Justice Byron White was said to regard Stevens as erratic.

More recently, there were disapproving clucks when a former law clerk wrote that two clerks got into a shoving match in a court hallway.

The current chief justice, William H. Rehnquist, sees little reason to explain the court's idiosyncrasies, or his own. The gold stripes he added to the arms of his black robe a few years back were a rare flourish that still has tongues wagging.

Rob Scheidlinger, who is producing ABC's ``The Court,'' discussed his plans with Rehnquist more than a year ago. Scheidlinger said he assured Rehnquist the show would not be a ``roman a clef,'' with real justices only thinly disguised as fictional characters.

``He was actually very direct with me. If it was up to him,'' there would be no show, Scheidlinger said. ``I don't imagine anyone working on the court is looking forward to a television series about them. This is something they don't have control of.''

Representatives of the rival show for CBS, ``First Monday,'' did not speak for the record.

Planning for both shows predates the court's intervention into the 2000 presidential election, but increased public curiosity about the institution probably made the projects more marketable.

Depicting even the high-drama Bush v. Gore case would require some dramatic license. No one outside the inner circle of the court knows what really went on as the justices discussed the disputed election and divided bitterly over the outcome.

So far both shows are pilots, with hopes the networks will pick them up as full series. Networks announce their fall lineups in mid-May.

``The Court,'' produced by Touchstone Television, focuses on the heady Washington experiences and tangled personal lives of telegenic young law clerks. Sally Field stars as a left-leaning justice.

The show's cast spent a chilly Sunday this month filming on the building's famous front plaza. That was as close as court officials would let the cameras come to the inner reaches of the building.

``First Monday,'' stars James Garner as an aging lion of a chief justice. The show is named for the traditional start of the annual court term on the first Monday in October.

``First Monday,'' modeled in part on NBC's successful ``West Wing,'' aims for a similar mix of snappy dialogue, realistic settings and plots that echo real events. Some of the pilot is being shot in a mock courtroom built in a Los Angeles airplane hangar.

``West Wing,'' now in its second season, got a lot of access to the Clinton White House the show resembles.

But that kind of Hollywood-Washington cross-pollination will not take place at the Supreme Court.

The court bans commercial filming inside the building, but sometimes grants requests to use the columned exterior in projects dealing specifically with the court.

``I would just hope the court would be treated with the respect and dignity that the institution deserves,'' court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said. ``I would hope that of any project.''