Muhammad Ali

The Marble Palace Blog: A Former Law Clerk’s Favorite SCOTUS Movie

A former clerk reminisces about his favorite Supreme Court-related movie. What’s your favorite SCOTUS movie?

Thank you for reading The Marble Palace Blog, which I hope will inform and surprise you about the Supreme Court of the United States. My name is Tony Mauro. I’ve covered the Supreme Court since 1979 and for ALM since 2000. I semiretired in 2019, but I am still fascinated by the high court. I’ll welcome any tips or suggestions for topics to write about. You can reach me at [email protected].

Former William & Mary Law School dean Thomas Krattenmaker has retired at age 79, though he still has a few clients. But he still gets a lot of phone calls from people seeking his expertise about a long-ago Supreme Court decision titled Clay v. United States.

Why? Because he was a former law clerk to Justice John Harlan II in 1971, one of the key justices who persuaded the Supreme Court to reverse, on procedural grounds, the conviction of Muhammad Ali for refusing to report for induction in the military. (Cassius Clay Jr. was Ali’s previous name.)

One of the latest phone calls Krattenmaker received (apart from mine) were from the production company of Ken Burns, whose four-part series on Muhammad Ali was aired by PBS last fall. Krattenmaker made several appearances in the documentary to explain how Ali won after most of the justices had originally thought Ali should be convicted.

Krattenmaker thought the documentary was a good one, but to be honest, Krattenmaker continued, “I don’t mind being quoted in saying I think the best movie ever made about the Supreme Court was ‘Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,’” a 2013 HBO movie about Ali’s legal battle.

“You have to realize that’s a fairly low bar,” Krattenmaker mused. “I think the other two cases about the court that I can think of are ‘First Monday in October’ [from 1981] and ‘The Magnificent Yankee’ [from 1950].” Krattenmaker was quick to acknowledge that other newer Supreme Court films such as “RBG” and “On the Basis of Sex,” as well as “Amistad,” in which Justice Harry Blackmun played a cameo role, have merit.

Of course, Krattenmaker may have a bias toward the HBO movie. He was recruited as a consultant for the movie to bring as much authenticity as possible.

In a 2013 interview, Krattenmaker told me the HBO movie was fairly accurate in showing the inner workings and deliberations of the Supreme Court. Famed actor Christopher Plummer, recently deceased, played Harlan, and Krattenmaker said, “Plummer was Harlan. He looks like him, sounds like him.” (IMHO, it is a movie worth watching for those who want to learn about how the court works.)

Krattenmaker made several suggestions to the director for the sake of accuracy. Informed by Krattenmaker that Harlan’s whiskey of choice was Rebel Yell, the filmmakers made the substitution—even making sure that they showed a bottle with the label that was used in 1971. Krattenmaker himself was portrayed by an actor as one of several law clerks who got involved in a fist fight between liberals and conservatives. Krattenmaker said no such fight occurred in reality.

Movies and television shows that attempt to reveal the inside working of the court often include law clerk fisticuffs and romances. Faced with the reality that the court can be a somnolent institution, directors often hype it with “West Wing”-style intensity, including scenes involving hot young law clerks.

When CBS in 2002 launched aTV series titled “First Monday,” veteran advocate Carter Phillips of Sidley Austin watched it and famously called it “vomitous.”

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