• John Constance

Equal Justice Under Law, 1976

Updated: Apr 11


It was early springtime in Washington DC, and it was past time for this project to be finished. After all, it was the bicentennial year, and this was a bicentennial project.


I had received a call some months before from Stafford Ritchie, Special Assistant to the General Counsel at the Administrative Office of the US Courts in Washington DC. The AO is the central support entity for the federal judicial branch and provides a wide range of management services to the federal courts. The office is directly supervised by the Judicial Conference of the United States, the body that sets the national and legislative policy of the federal judiciary.


Staff was providing support to the Judicial Conference of the United States which had chosen as their project for America’s 200th birthday, a film series about four key decisions of the Supreme Court and its fourth and longest serving Chief Justice, John Marshall. The Conference had engaged WQED in Pittsburgh to produce the series and they had hired as their on-screen narrator actor E.G. Marshall (no relation to John) who, while not a lawyer, had played the lawyer Lawrence Preston on the TV series The Defenders in the 1960s. Ed Holmes, a veteran actor from Canada who had had minor roles in a number of American films, was chosen to play Justice Marshall. The series was to be titled, Equal Justice Under Law.


This series was to be a full dramatization of Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, Gibbons v. Ogden, and the trial of Aaron Burr. Expensive to produce, it was the kind of project destined to run past deadlines.


I was Acting Director of Acquisitions at the National Audiovisual Center (NAC), a division of the National Archives. The Center was the vision of Jim Gibson, an old Washington public affairs pioneer who was one of the original promoters of Smokey Bear for the Department of Agriculture. Opened in 1969, NAC “repurposed” Federally-produced film, audio, slides, and later video for educational and business training use. For example, it placed the films of NASA and the US Park Service into classrooms across America and forest fire training programs into many of the Country’s rural fire departments. It operated on a self-supported basis out of the National Archives Trust Fund and is today hosted by the US Department of Commerce. Its collection is still over 9,000 titles.


My job was to find, appraise, and acquire government films for the Center to market and sell. I was a one-man show and beat the streets of Washington DC as an enthusiastic 26-year-old, preaching the gospel of the Center and meeting with government film makers. Knowing that the Bicentennial would be the source of some good products, I had approached the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration soon after they got rolling in 1974. Through my association with them, Staff Ritchie had found me and suggested that we get together and discuss the Equal Justice Series. Our ongoing dialog resulted in his phone call to me in the March of 1976.


Great news, he reported; we finally had something to look at. The folks from WQED were in town and had brought with them a rough cut of the Marbury v. Madison film. Apologizing for the short notice, he said that “a few of us” will be looking at the show late that very afternoon and would I like to come over to the Supreme Court to join them? I said absolutely and asked permission to bring along John Barta, our NAC marketing director. He said that he would check (which I found odd at the time) and get back to me. I chalked it up to Staff’s aversion to risk that I had discovered to be a part of his judicial DNA and awaited his call back.


He called back in 30 minutes and said that Mr. Barta could come as well. This call included times and specifics on entry to the Supreme Court garage entrance on 2nd Street, NE. As I think back on it, the security to get into that building was quaint and Victorian as compared to our post 9-11 world. No car description, no tag numbers, no social security numbers, no Supreme Court Security criminal background checks, no under car mirrors, no terrorist gates…just give them your name at the guard house. They’ll be expecting you.


I informed John of the plan and that I’d be glad to drive. He’d have to meet me there as he would be coming from an appointment with a printer in town that he didn’t want to change. Another call to Staff got John’s name on the guardhouse manifest and we were set to meet at the court at 4:30pm.


John Barta was a guy that you would not forget once you met him. Tall with thinning blonde hair combed straight back; his wrinkled face was due to his default expression…a broad smile. John was always well-dressed in business attire and preferred tan suits year around, white shirts, and bold ties. I think “hail fellow well met” would be the British description of his demeanor, and a law degree and some years at corporate Encyclopedia Britannica’s media operation made him a great resource to the Center and to me on that day. We didn’t always agree on the quality of films, but his knowledge of the industry was invaluable.


At the appointed hour, we arrived at the Supreme Court building simultaneously, the guard not even having to raise and lower the gate twice. Down the ramp we drove to two available parking spots and hopped on the elevator up to the first floor.


I remember marble and columns and majesty in every direction as we walked down the hall to the East Conference Room. Still Potomac-struck at this tender age, I got chills every time I encountered a new iconic space, and this one was right up there. As we approached the huge mahogany doors, I had no idea that on the other side there lurked a moment that I would never forget.


As I turned the handle and slowly pushed the door open, I realized that the room was dark, only illuminated by the flickering film that was already in progress. John and I quickly stepped inside, closing the door behind us, and stood for a moment to let our eyes adjust to the darkness. After a moment, I realized that the room was set up theater-style with about twenty-five folding chairs facing the portable film screen that was on our right. Fifteen of the chairs were occupied, so we circled to our left and slid into two seats about halfway up.


The film was obviously a rough cut and apologies were audible from the back of the room at various points in the presentation. But the lights remained off until the portion of the film that John and I saw was completed. When it hit the end, and the flapping film on the 16mm take-up reel was heard, the room was brightened by the white of the vacant screen. At that moment, someone stepped up and flipped on the overhead lights and the spectacular crystal chandelier in the center of this massive, paneled room.


As we were again adjusting our pupils, I looked to my right. The first thing I noticed was fur, lots of fur. Palomino mink in color, floor length in style, draped off the shoulders and onto the folding chair, there it was. And oh my God, there she was. Elizabeth Taylor sitting two empty folding chairs away from me. Wait a minute, what is Elizabeth Taylor doing here? And, by the way, what am I doing here with Elizabeth Taylor?


My eyes quickly scanned the room and there, standing by the light switch at the door was Stafford Ritchie. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to see his face. He was the guy who had invited me. He was in the room. I was in the room. This must be the right room.


As I looked back to my right, I now saw John Warner leaning forward and acknowledging me from the seat on the other side of Ms. Taylor. Handsome and dashing at the time and sporting a cigar in his right hand, he nodded and smiled. My addled mind was beginning to grasp why this famous couple were present when the gray-haired gentleman in the seat in front of me turned around, stuck out his hand and said, “Hi there, welcome, I’m Warren Burger.”


We shook hands as I’m sure I said something brilliant like…hello, I’m cottage cheese.


As he stood up, John and I stood, and the Chief Justice now shook hands with Barta. As an attorney, for John this was like pressing the flesh with Mickey Mantle. His response to Burger’s greeting was more coherent than mine, but he had not yet spotted the star of National Velvet, Butterfield 8, Cleopatra, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, who was wrapped in mink, and stretched back provocatively in a gray folding chair about ten feet away. Yes, she even made a gray folding chair look special.


I turned to Barta, but before I could get his attention, someone tapped me on the left should and said hi. As we both turned to the folks sitting behind us, there with outstretched hand was Justice Byron “Whizzer” White. Football All-American at University of Colorado, three years in the NFL, WWII veteran, graduate of Yale Law School, Assistant Attorney General to Robert Kennedy, and appointee to the Supreme Court in 1962 by President Kennedy…wow, this day was getting better and better. The Justice introduced us to his wife Marion, and we explained our attendance at the screening. He knew all about it, given his role as the Chief Justice’s designee to head up the film project, and was most gracious in thanking us for coming. I laughed and said (and this I remember), had I known the guest list, I’d have worn a tuxedo and gotten here earlier.[1]


Justice White asked whether we had met John Warner and I said that we had met previously at a meeting at the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration (where he had been appointed Administrator by President Ford), but I doubted that he would remember me. With that he worked his way down his row to link us up with Warner. As Barta turned to follow, I heard an “oh my God” in a gasping whisper and felt a thump in the middle of my back. He had spotted Elizabeth Taylor who was making no effort to get up as John Warner stood and reached across her to shake our hands. He then introduced us to “Elizabeth” who looked up and extended her hand in a way that made it unclear as to whether I was to shake it or kiss it. Knowing that I was so far out of my league as to not know what to do, I went with a shake and uttered the understatement of the year, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I remember her incredible eyes, but not what she said in response. I’m guessing that it was not a big moment in her life, and come to think of it, she might have said nothing.


I do remember that John Barta had to reach around me to shake both Warner and Elizabeth’s hand. It was a bit awkward, but I was not relinquishing my spot next to the fur and the star, so John just had to deal with it.


After greeting Staff and thanking him profusely for the invitation, I told him that I now understood why the guest list had been tightly controlled and that my colleague’s inclusion needed clearance. He thanked me for understanding and told me that the Chief had extended the invitations personally and even he wasn’t sure what to expect. Pretty cool turnout, however.


We watched another segment of film, listened in rapt attention as Elizabeth told us what she thought, mingled with the producers, writer, and cinematographer from WQED, and nibbled at a nice buffet that had been set up at the side of the room for the occasion. The Chief Justice and I arrived at the cheese offering at the same moment at one point in the evening and I had the chance to comment on John Marshall’s law tutelage at my alma mater, William, and Mary. We also chatted briefly about the Marshall Papers project at the College, funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives.


Our conversation was interrupted by one of the WQED folks who complemented Burger on the choice of wines for the evening. This afforded the opportunity for the Chief to discuss the skills of Thomas Jefferson as an expert on wines of the day and the extent of his cellar at Monticello. This led to an inquiry by one of the guests as to the social habits of Marshall, and for example, would he and Mr. Jefferson have been in the same social circle in what would have been the small town of Washington at the time. Burger, though only speculating, said that he would think not. He said that just as it would seem inappropriate for him to have entertained President Nixon or vice versa, he presumed that this tradition would have been born in the Marshall era.


Not wanting to overstay our welcome, and recognizing our junior status at the ball, John and I departed prior to most of the guests, doing the rounds of thank yous and bidding a special adieu to Mr. Warner and his special companion for the evening[2].


As John and I again traversed the massive central hall of the Court, John spontaneously took up the appropriate tune, “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” from the musical Sweet Charity. We sang and danced all the way to the elevators giggling like a couple of fools. Sweet memories.



[1] I would have one more meeting with Justice White, one on one in his chambers later that year. We discussed the distribution of the film series and were interrupted only once when his blonde Labrador Retriever, who was, unbeknownst to me, sleeping under his desk, rolled over on my foot and scared me to death. [2] John Warner and Elizabeth Taylor were married in December of that same year, 1976. Warner was Taylor’s sixth husband and seventh marriage, she having been married twice to Richard Burton. It was just John Warner’s second marriage. They had each started their wedding cavalcades in grand style with Taylor marrying Conrad Hilton, Jr. and Warner marrying the heiress to the Mellon fortune. At the time of our meeting in March of 1976, Taylor was 44 years old, and Warner was 49.

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