A Supreme Court of Classic Movie Characters

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has been in the news of late. Perhaps you have noticed. There are several important issues up for review and I am ever mindful of the impact the decisions of the highest court in the land has on the lives of Americans. I tend to worry too much about things I cannot control, but also look for outlets where I can voice my opinions and avenues of distraction. The latter usually falls on classic movies. Why not pretend then that I have the power to appoint classic film characters to the Supreme Court? That is what I’ve done here, but first allow me to lay the background.

Authority of the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789 created the SCOTUS. The Act was in accordance with Article III of the Constitution, which provides “the judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court.” The SCOTUS consists of one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. The number of Associate Justices is fixed at eight, but can be changed by Congress at any time. The President has the power to nominate a Justice with appointments reviewed and approved by the Senate. Supreme Court Justices serve on the Court for as long as they deem appropriate or for life.

The President nominates someone for a vacancy on the Court and the Senate votes to confirm the nominee, which requires a simple majority. In this way, both the Executive and Legislative Branches of the federal government have a voice in the composition of the Supreme Court with (perhaps) the greatest voice given the people of the United States who vote for president. Although one would think that politics should not play a role in the appointment of justices to the highest court in the land, it undoubtedly does, which is why I chose this as my topic for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Politics on Film Blogathon.

While the Constitution stipulates qualifications for being President of the United States, it is silent as to qualifications for Supreme Court justices. For instance, The Constitution does not say that a Justice must be American born, of a certain age or hold any particular profession before appointment. Based on that I make my choices below. The only stipulation written concerning the qualifications of a Supreme Court Justice is that he or she should be “of such a high standard of honesty and moral goodness that it cannot be doubted or criticized.”

Right before the 2016 elections, I published A Government by Classic Movie Characters in which I ascribed top U.S. government positions to movie characters I view as having a high standard of honesty and moral goodness. The only rule I am adhering to here is to avoid duplicating any character mentioned there since they are running our government. I There are two exceptions to that, however, and I mention which the two are below and do so with the understanding that it is completely reasonable that they are able to accept life appointments to the SCOTUS regardless of previous employment as that is constitutional.

Among the criteria by which I chose these characters are diversity, dignity, and a sense of the ordinary, as they must have a strong sense of real people in order to make judgments that will undoubtedly affect ordinary lives. Finally, you may notice that I excluded an obvious choice for a SCOTUS justice nominee, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). That is done on purpose, as Finch is a shoe-in on anyone’s list. Instead, I tried to go for less apparently worthy characters, but who bring varied gifts to the Court and the country. Without further ado, here is my version of A Supreme Court of Classic Movie Characters. 

Chief Justice: Virgil Tibbs played by Sidney Poitier in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night

With a background in law enforcement, Virgil Tibbs brings invaluable experience to the highest Court. Having to succeed despite great injustices due to racism also gives Justice Tibbs a unique understanding of the plight of many Americans. The fact that he succeeds despite these difficult hurdles with dignity further makes him a natural in the role of Chief Justice, the one whose face and character is most likely to stand public scrutiny.

Mammy played by Hattie McDaniel in Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind

Mammy previously held the position of Ambassador to the United Nations, a role she fit to a tee given her worldly views. A woman who has seen and experienced everything under the sun and whose heart is as big as the moon, Mammy would serve justice with unequaled vigor and would become the soul of the SCOTUS. Fiercely loyal, Mammy who would dedicate her life to ensuring all persons and issues are represented with honor. It is wonderous to imagine what this woman could have accomplished had her world been a different one.

Juror # 4 played by E. G. Marshall in Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men

In a room full of men from all walks of life determined to pass judgment on a minority youth, Juror # 4 remains steadfast in search of truth. He is the least emotional of the jurors and makes his final determination easily, but only after being presented the facts of the case, facts he had never thought of before, facts that are of ultimate interest to him. To do the right thing seems this man’s only goal and one has to respect that from anyone, especially a SCOTUS Justice, which is why he gets to sit on the Court.

Millie Stevenson played by Myrna Loy in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives

For the sake of full disclosure, unlike all others noted on this list, I wanted to include Myrna Loy here without even considering a character she played on screen. There is just something intrinsically calming and reassuring about her, qualities I believe are positives in a Supreme Court. That said, there is a character she plays that exhibits those qualities and has a deep understanding of human nature, which is again important for one making decisions of the highest order. That character is Millie Stevenson, the wife of Platoon Sergeant Al Stephenson, a veteran of WWII. The kind of strength Millie Stevenson shows throughout The Best Years of Our Lives is extraordinary never passing judgment on human frailties. Further, her matter-of-fact views on the trials and tribulations of marriage would serve her well as a SCOTUS justice.

Nick Charles played by William Powell in The Thin Man series

My original choice for the SCOTUS Justice slot was Mrs. Hubbard played by Lauren Bacall in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express because she is fierce. Alas, I could not get around the fact that she gathered forces to commit murder, a definite negative attribute for Supreme Court Justice. Next, I considered any number of Gloria Grahame roles because her bad girls were always so touchingly human. I do not believe a Supreme Court Justice must be flaw free, but that the flaws must not affect his/her judgment. In the end, however, I realized that there is no type played by Gloria Grahame that I would deem appropriate for the SCOTUS so I settled for a more benign and traditional choice. 

Nick Charles, created by Dashiell Hammett, is a former private detective who retired when he married Nora, a wealthy Nob Hill heiress. As you probably know, Mr. Charles can barely stay away from crime – or crime stay away from him. His natural talents for solving murders are legendary. In addition, while Nick and Nora live in high society, Nick has a penchant for the downtrodden calling many people who have fallen on hard times his friends. All of these things make Nick Charles exactly the kind of person who can judge on the merits of cases, rather than the merits of people.

You may be asking about Nick Charles’ drinking and what that may mean for a Supreme Court Justice. The question certainly merits discussion. However, it is evident that his talent and stellar reputation for crime detection are among the best. In fact, the police and past associates turn to him for assistance often meaning there is no evidence that drinks have ever impeded his judgment. 

Clarence Odbody played by Henry Travers in Frank Capra’s It is a Wonderful Life

“You know, sir, he’s got the I.Q. of a rabbit,” Joseph says. “Yes, but he’s got the faith of a child. Simple.” Franklin replies.

We have brilliant minds on this Court. One with a child’s trust and perception would only enhance it. It is not easy to think of another person with as strong an urge to do good. There is also no one else who is as patient, or as supportive, or even as non-judgmental. When the time comes to be harsh, Clarence is capable there as well. One can easily imagine that when the Court is in need of delivering a difficult or unpopular opinion, it is Clarence who the others turn to for guidance. Attaboy.

Hildy Johnson played by Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday

Someone with experience in the fourth estate is an important addition to the Supreme Court. In that regard Hildy Johnson brings years of experience as a “newspaper man” (as they refer to her in the movie), a talented raconteur, a sparring partner, a wordsmith and all around great gal. No doubt, Hildy would be among the most popular justices and the Supreme Court can always use positive popular opinion. 

In addition, Hildy Johnson would be a terrific role model for women professionals everywhere having excelled in the compelling, frenzied world of print journalism, traditionally viewed as a male-dominated profession. Ms. Johnson has varied expertise such as in matters of the responsibility of the press, the importance of truth and knowledge of several forms of corruption. Should Hildy Johnson’s opinions be in the minority, her dissents would be the stuff of legend.

C. C. Baxter played by Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment

As one of cinema’s most memorable anyman, C. C. Baxter has had to endure humiliating circumstances in pursuit of a life. Baxter is a nameless, faceless cog in the wheel of corporate America, like millions of others who sit at desks every day just to pay their bills, an oft-tiring demeaning prospect. C. C. Baxter is a decent, moral man who reaches his limit one day and is the better for it. No doubt with Baxter on the SCOTUS workplace harassment issues in all forms would be outdated and the proverbial “little guy” will have his day in court.

Barton Keyes played by Edward G. Robinson in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity

Like Mammy, Barton Keyes was employed by the U.S. government prior to his nomination for Supreme Court Justice. He was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. It is difficult to determine whether that particular role would serve the SCOTUS in any discernable way, but the history and proclivities of this character would no doubt add immeasurably to the Court.

It is important to note that unlike the other justices on this Court; Mr. Keyes is a humorist rather than outright funny, meaning he is not beyond performing to make a point. That is probably well said about a few of our justices as well, however. It may seem at first that Mr. Keyes is a more flawed character than the other on this list as he is a bit rough around the edges, quite ruthless, and often outright irritable. He is also likely to choke the other justices with his cigars. However, human frailty he is also big-hearted, a father figure, confident, a prime investigator, and not threatened bromances. Perhaps Barton Keyes’ most important attribute as a SCOTUS Justice is the “little man” who lives in his gut that serves as a warning when something is “off.” Any case presented before him must be argued fully and righteously or the “little man” will not stand for it. Here again we have a justice with little tolerance for anything but the truth.

Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes

There you have the nine justices on my Supreme Court. You may have noticed there is a sense of playfulness to the lot, but it is believed that most would agree that that is welcome in this day of extreme partisanship and stress. In all seriousness, the most important thing to remember is that when you cast your vote in this or any presidential election you are also voting for members of the highest court in the land should there be a vancancy.

Be sure to visit the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Politics in Film Blogathon, which runs from October 20 – 23. The entries are varied, entertaining, and are sure to take your mind off the news.

4 thoughts

  1. Your 2016 article lives on in the memory and I recall nodding sagely and smiling at its wisdom.
    A similar reaction occurred this time around with one exception. The inclusion of Clarence Oddbody inexplicably brought a rush of tears to my eyes! Nonetheless, the attributes of these familiar and beloved characters are sorely needed on a body as august as the Supreme Court.

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