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Radiolab Presents: More Perfect - The Political Thicket

Friday, June 10, 2016 - 03:00 AM

Justice Charles Evans Whittaker. (Illustration credit: Mitch Boyer)

This story comes from Radiolab's first ever spin-off podcast, More Perfect. To hear more, subscribe here.

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.

Music in this episode by Gyan RileyAlex OveringtonDavid HermanTobin Low and Jad Abumrad

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.

Archival interviews with Justice William O. Douglas come from the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University Library.

Special thanks to Whittaker's clerks: Heywood Davis, Jerry Libin and James Adler. Also big thanks to Jerry Goldman at Oyez.



Louis Michael Seidman, Guy-Uriel Charles, Tara Grove, Samuel Issacharoff, Alan Kohn and J. Douglas Smith

Produced by:

Suzie Lechtenberg


More in:

Comments [27]

Greta Hyland from Utah

This was fascinating and incredibly relevant today as the court will be looking at redistricting. I found it interesting that it boiled down to interfering with politics as it seemed to be more of a Constitutional issue over equal rights under the law to me. People were being disenfranchised by not getting the representation they deserved. This is happening today with gerrymandering across the country, most notably in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. I agree with one of the comments that the court is not meant to be a silent arbitor but an integral part of the checks and balances of our government. If not them deciding what is Constitutional, then who?

Mar. 11 2018 11:31 PM
Jaimes Beam from Maine

An interesting issue, and I agree, an important one.

If the court does not provide checks and balances to the legislature, who will? Those whose votes have already been stolen from? Not going to happen, therefore the court must enforce the constitution and our principles of democracy. This applies to the executive branch and vice versa as well.

If democracy does not have rules it must follow, and which constrain it, then it is no better then mob rule, or might makes right!

Jul. 03 2017 10:23 AM
Erika Budrovich from California

A truly incredible series. I somehow missed this podcast's debut, and spend the weekend binge-listening to every episode. I am halfway through law school and these episodes brilliantly present the issues, the personalities, and the drama behind cases that have the power to change the law (or, determine what the law "is"). I'm beyond impressed at how well this series conveys how much is at stake in so many Supreme Court cases both for those on the ground and for what each decision means for the nation going forward. For multiple episodes, the emotional, human element is so beautifully presented, I've been brought to tears, and I've find myself needing to explain to others I run into that no, nothing's wrong, I just was listening to a podcast. Needless to say, don't stop; please make more. I know from the courses that I've taken and the law that I've studied there are countless more stories to tell and I cannot wait.

Oct. 03 2016 11:35 PM
Tim from Haarlem, NL

So funny: 'oyez', written as 'ojee' means 'oops!' in Dutch. So each time the tune starts, I am like, oh man the court is going to screw up again :-)

Sep. 21 2016 05:11 AM
Jack M from NJ

Loved this series!! So interesting and educational, I loved every episode! When is it coming back??

Sep. 19 2016 09:10 AM
Nancy Ferguson from Santa Barbara

That mnemonic I sent was less perfect.

Should have been: Alligator bites kangaroo. Kangaroo retaliates, stomps gator's tail.

Unless you prefer to keep alphabetical order: Alligator bites gray kangaroo.
Kangaroo retaliates,stomps tail.

Add Garner, use both!

Sep. 13 2016 05:53 PM
Lisa Schwartz from Columbia, MO

Unbelievably great story to hear, especially at this juncture in our republic. I sought how to "subscribe" to this series, but couldn't find it. Please continue. Please reach out to me so that I might subscribe or donate. Excellent -- everyone needs to listen to this.

Aug. 07 2016 03:58 PM

I know this is a spin-off miniseries of RadioLab, but wow do I look forward to new episodes of More Perfect. I love the stories, please keep up the good work.

Aug. 01 2016 08:42 AM
Deb Russell from Westchester County, NY

Love the More Perfect series and really look forward to future podcasts.

I did feel something was missing from the adoptive parents story. We adopted our son in 2001 from an established OK agency headed by a respected lawyer. We were told upfront at the time that we would not be able to adopt a child with Indian heritage because the laws in this area were complicated and they would not risk the possibility of problems that an adoption could not be completed. This experience left me with several reactions to this story: Did the biological father never mention his Indian heritage prior because the biological mother's lawyer would surely have asked about it? Did the adoptive parents use an experienced adoptive lawyer who surely would have asked about the issue of Indian heritage? How many children of Indian heritage have been left in foster care instead of placing them with loving families because lawyers (like ours) would not handle the situation?

Jul. 09 2016 10:11 PM
Faith from Los Angeles

Fabulous!!! I'm the first to complain when RadioLab strays from its scientific focus, but when you all deliberately start a new project that goes Elsewhere, you really knock it out of the park.

Count me in as a regular listener. Keep 'em coming!

Jul. 06 2016 07:01 PM
I'm All Ears from Chicago

Wonderful story. Congratulations on the new "spin-off" venture into the humanities or governance. (I'm not sure which it is, but it's interesting so far.) However, I must agree with other listeners: your use of profanity (and near-profanity) is pathetic, disappointing, and arguably the fastest route to losing any thinking person's respect. I suggest that you try excluding foul language and see if your fanbase clamors for its return. Also, I am under 30.

Jun. 28 2016 02:56 PM
nancy ryan from New Mexico

A podcast of brilliance, beauty and moving in the way Radio used to be. thank you. i wish they subscribed to it in every middle school in the country. It reminded me of a tide going in and out early in the morning.
The sand bars are for a brief time invisible This is what transparency narrative the media is all about.

I ave hosted and edited shows. This is a labor of love. Masterful!

Splendid! as one of Frankfurters correspondents would have said after wiping his brow and putting down a five page, single space letters!
I had to file them!

Who may I send a more private e mail to? Nancy Ryan

Jun. 25 2016 10:12 PM
cindy from stockton, ca

Radiolab is by far one of my most favorite podcasts, partly because of the show's layout, partly because of the preparation and presentation, and mostly because of how thoroughly researched each show is. When I first heard More Perfect I started listening and didn't stop until all that was available was heard. I LOVE IT. The intended audience is the everyday American, and as it should be in my opinion. I went back to school when I turned 49, thought about law but ended up getting my masters in criminal justice. With that said I studied many cases while entertaining law, and find the 4 More Perfect episodes I've listened to brought substance to many areas that I studied.

Speaking as one who has tried to have a case reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, I found listening to this episode was helpful to me simply for the connection of power and human nature. Great job Radiolab. Perhaps a future episode could cover the process of having a case reviewed by the them. In particular the step of a case that has made it up to the United States Supreme Court by going through all the required channels of lower courts, then once at the U.S. Supreme Court's door, the possibility of it being turned away by a clerk.

Bring it on! GREAT JOB.

Jun. 23 2016 11:02 AM
David from Minnesota, USA

...Addendum: To balance out my praise, I will echo George Schaefer's comment, but maybe with a bit less passion. I know some folks who would love this series but I don't feel I can share it with them because of the very occasional strong language. It also means they can't be used as teaching tools in public schools. Are censored versions available anywhere? If not, it's never too late to start!

Jun. 20 2016 11:51 PM
David from Minnesota, USA

I just wanted to voice my appreciation of this spin-off. I think the quality is great and the content is both entertaining and important. I imagine starting this project took some bravery, but it's working. Keep them coming!

Jun. 20 2016 11:39 PM
Jill from Springfield, MO

Incredible show! I've enjoyed each of the episodes and can't wait to hear more. Thanks for this new look inside Supreme Court cases!

Jun. 19 2016 08:15 PM

So they reefer to first nations as "indians" 10/10 GOOD JOB XD.

Jun. 18 2016 01:26 PM
Frederick from Gainesville fl

When are new episodes supposed to be posted? The page says every Thursday?

Jun. 17 2016 03:46 PM
todd from Oakland CA

What happened? The show tonight on KQED pales to last year. I'm so sad! I was ready to offer some show ideas last year but bleach, tonight is such a disappointment.

Jun. 17 2016 05:27 AM
DMSeattle from Seattle

Btw, contrary to the comment about SJW mentality:
I didn't hear it.
And I am very sensitive to the mentality & largely detest it, while acknowledging the good intentions.
But as we know, life needs more than intention but also manifestation and I thought fair-handed intention was manifest very well.
well done!

Jun. 13 2016 11:52 PM
DMSeattle from Seattle

Brilliantly done.
Reminds me of why I went to law school.
Truly impressive work.

Jun. 13 2016 11:48 PM

loved the podcast!

but where is the first episode? i only see one.

Jun. 13 2016 10:27 AM
George Schaefer from Dunedin, Florida.

Ira Flato gives me all the science I need.

I'm trying to figure out your expected target audience.
Your use of four letter words and slang like "prick, got screwed and cluster****" is so sophomorish that I have to conclude that you're going after the under 30 crowd that would find that type of language witty.
It isn't. It's low brow. Try to speak like you've been doing this for awhile.

Jun. 12 2016 10:56 AM
Elizabeth from 66205

This is a wonderful podcast. More, please.

Jun. 11 2016 10:00 PM
Shane from USSA

If one can get past the lifetime of cultural/societal/govt.-school brainwashing one is subjected to here in the USSA and actually THINK about 'our' system of will come to the conclusion that it is utterly insane.

Jun. 10 2016 11:13 PM
IvPeople from California

I am so excited about this new series. I have spent thousands of hours in the law library studying case law. After all of those hours, I have learned that the case law means absolutely nothing. It is just a subjective tool to promote an agenda. Just because it is written does not make it so.

Several years ago, I decided to study civil rights laws, specifically, police procedures. You can have dozens of case laws to support you and it doesn't mean anything if no one will listen. For example: I have been detained by police over 20 times in a 2 year time span. Why? According the police I "look suspicious" which is nothing more than a euphemism for their particular bias. According to several case laws, detaining a person without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity is illegal yet, it still happens. According to the law (California), a person can refuse certain commands if it is not in the lawful performance of duty, yet, when you exercise the law, you are still punished. Case law is meaningless and can be manipulated--a judge can chose to ignore case law at his discretion. It is all subjective. American policing would look totally differently if case law had meaning.

Jun. 10 2016 06:54 PM
Not Donald Trump from anywhere

Enjoying the show but not enjoying the seeming trend here at RadioLab. Where have the science stories gone? We seem to be getting a lot off Law stuff and other scattered ideas (ice skating, Debate club). Get Carl Zimmer in the studio and lets talk science.

Jun. 10 2016 10:52 AM

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