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Unearthing Supreme Court History in 'More Perfect,' Episode 1

Fans of the Supreme Court and NPR are in for a treat. Radiolab, NPR's science-based radio show, has its first spin off: "More Perfect." This new podcast, which you can listen to online, takes a look at "the rarefied world of the Supreme Court to explain how cases deliberated inside hallowed halls affect lives far away from the bench."

And while the characters and cases that "More Perfect" touches on won't be unfamiliar to legal professionals, some of the backstory might be. For the rest of the summer, we'll be providing weekly reviews of past episodes. We hope you'll follow us along as we explore some lesser-known Supreme Court history, unearthed by the journalists behind "More Perfect."

A Great Show, With One Major Caveat

Before we dive in, some words. "More Perfect" is a light, engaging, fun program that is perfectly suited for lawyers and legal professionals. But it is also very NPR. It suffers, a lot, from common NPR clichés, like the compulsion to turn every story into an anecdote, to affect a faux naiveté, and to rely on cutesy banter. "More Perfect" does this more than many other NPR shows as well.

The second episode, for example, begins with host Jab Abumrad, an intelligent man who conceptualized a radio show about the Supreme Court, asking "is that a big court?" when his co-host, Suzie Lechtenberg, mentions the Warren Court. That whole episode is based on the premise that Baker v. Carr, the case that gave us "one man, one vote," is a "little" case, and relatively unknown.

But, if you can get around those annoyances (or if you're not annoyed by them at all), the show is definitely worth it. And if you can't, just read our reviews instead!

A 30-Minute Research Project That Lead to Multiple Supreme Court Cases

The first episode of the podcast, "Cruel and Unusual," deals with, you guessed it, the death penalty. The show begins with Reprieve, a British human rights group, and specifically Maya Foa, director of the organization's death penalty team.

On the eve of an execution in Arizona, Foa began a 30-minute research that would lead to more than five years of fighting executions, giving birth to several Supreme Court cases along the way.

Foa took it upon herself to find where the death penalty drugs in Arizona are supplied from, in order to show that the drugs are not FDA-approved. Her research resulted in a last-minute stay of that execution, after she discovered that the drugs to be used were sent from the United Kingdom and there was no FDA-approved supplier of those drugs in the U.K.

Foa goes to sleep victorious, but awakes to learn that the execution had proceeded anyway. While Foa was asleep, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution could go forward, FDA-approved drugs or not.

That leads to a 40-some minute exploration of the modern death penalty fight in the United States, going from the labs of pharmaceutical companies, to jailhouse gallows, to, of course, the Supreme Court.

Highlights From Episode One

Here are the best insights and trivia from the episode:

  • Before manufacturers stopped making sodium pentothal for lethal injections, one of the three-drugs in the previous lethal injection cocktail, the drug was already hard to find, with states trading much-needed supplies back and forth.
  • "You guys in Arizona are life savers," California officials wrote Arizona after they provide them with sodium thiopental, the drug needed for lethal injection.
  • Arizona's death penalty procedures were handwritten, and very sloppy.
  • When those drugs were imported to the United States, they traveled from Austria, to Germany, to the United Kingdom, to another company in England, known as Dream Pharma, and then to the United States.
  • Dream Pharma was actually a single man operating out of an East London driving school.
  • Activists like Maya were criticized from the bench by conservative justices, including Justice Scalia, for actually making it more difficult to humanely end a life.
  • One of the politicians most responsible for the proliferation of lethal injection was Bill Wiseman, who opposed capital punishment. Supporting the death penalty for political reasons, but opposing it morally, Wiseman devoted himself to a more humane form of execution, which resulted in the first lethal injection cocktail.
  • Wiseman, so torn by his involvement in capital punishment, quit politics and became a pastor.

The Supreme Court, of course, upheld the new lethal injection cocktail last year, but the decision lead Justices Breyer and Ginsburg to announce that they would be open to ruling that the death penalty was unconstitutional.

Join us next week, from more recaps of "More Perfect!"

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