Key Constitutional Concepts
Key Constitutional Concepts is a three-part film examining the creation of the Constitution and two real-life Constitutional conflicts that came to be seen as landmark Supreme Court cases: Gideon v. Wainwright and Youngstown v. Sawyer.
The first part of the film takes a close look at the creation of the Constitution, taking us into Independence Hall in Philadelphia that hot summer in 1787 as the Founding Fathers, facing the very real possibility that their new country was going to fall apart from the outside in. The Founders bickered and compromised their way to a government that all of them would be surprised to find is still in existence over 200 years later.
We then fast forward to the mid-twentieth century and two landmark Supreme Court cases that prove the Constitution’s resilience. In Gideon v. Wainwright, one man who thinks he was denied a basic right seeks the help of the Supreme Court, where the case turns into a tangle of dilemmas about an implicit and explicit right, as well as the roles the federal government and the states play in guaranteeing that right. And in Youngstown v. Sawyer, a battle that starts as fight between a president and industry leaders makes its way to the Supreme Court as a test of the separation of powers.
As part of a box-set of classroom resources from Annenberg Classroom, Key Constitutional Concepts has been distributed to 50,000 educational institutions, as well as the U.S. Dept of Justice, the Supreme Court & the Library of Congress.
- CINE Golden Eagle
US International Film Video Festival
INTERCOM Silver Hugo Award
ABA Coalition for Justice Award
See the Constitution at Our Documents from the National Archive
Check out Professor Carol Berkin’s bios of the Founders
Read up on Independence Hall
Look at Gideon’s petition, housed at the National Archives
Read the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the Right to Counsel
Read about the history and current struggles to ensure the Right to Counsel
Learn about Harry Truman from the Truman Library
Read Truman’s presidential address about the steel seizure
Read Justice Jackson’s decision
- In Gideon v. Wainwright, one man who thinks he was denied a basic right seeks the help of the Supreme Court. Clarence Earl Gideon was sitting in prison after having been found guilty of stealing pocket change and some liquor from a pool hall where he was known as one of the regulars. It was bad enough that he claimed he was innocent; but he also claimed that his Constitutional rights had been violated by the very court that tried and convicted him. It was Gideon’s belief – his other conviction, if you will – that the Constitution guaranteed him the right to a lawyer to defend him in court but the judge who presided over his trial refused to appoint counsel to assist him. As it happened, until that time, the courts agreed that Gideon was wrong. As judges interpreted the Constitution until 1963, not every defendant throughout the 50 states could claim such a right. But lightning comes from the ground up. And when a yellow piece of prison stationary with a poor man’s scribblings landed in the mailroom of the highest court in the land, arguing that he should be heard, there was enough change in the air to suggest that the time for a universal right to counsel had come.
In Youngstown v. Sawyer, a battle that starts as fight between a president and industry leaders makes its way to the Supreme Court as a test of the separation of powers. This time the setting is the Oval Office. Harry S. Truman is President, and he had inherited from his predecessor, FDR, a remarkable amount of power. After finishing the war with Germany and Japan, Truman and almost losing to Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election, Truman was back for one more term, and he went back to war…sort of. Truman sent troops to fight in Korea without asking Congress to declare war. But when union troubles among steelworkers and the steel industry executives threatened to halt production, Truman did all he could to keep the factories running—he needed that steel to help fight the conflict in Korea, after all. But Truman went too far. Unwilling to use the provisions of a recent law passed by Congress to deal with just this sort of situation because he believed it was unfair to the union, Truman did what he considered to be his only option: he took over the steel industry. But the industry was not willing to take this lying down and within a few short weeks the case had reached the Supreme Court. Truman assumed he’d be victorious—he was the President, after all, and all of the Justices had been appointed either by him or FDR. And yet the Court, affirming its independence and proving that it’s free from political considerations, sided against the President and took the first step to limiting the powers of the office of the Chief Executive just years after they had been at their highest.
Key Constitutional Concepts is part of a series of films produced for Annenberg Classroom, a project of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands in partnership with the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. AnnenbergClassroom.org is an online gateway to award-winning resources for students and teachers.
- Producer and Writer, Robe Imbriano
Associate Producer, Maria E. Matasar-Padilla
Editors, Sak Costanzo and Liz Mermin
Graphics Animator, Stevie Clifton
Director of Photography, Edward Marritz
Narrator, Erik Todd Dellums
Host, Dan Harris
Production Associate, Konstantinos Kambouroglou
Coordinating Producer, Gabrielle Tenenbaum
Sound, Mark Mandler
Music, Gavin Allen and Ben Decter
Associate Editor, Marc Tidalgo
Senior Editorial Producer, Todd Brewster
Senior Producer, Kayce Freed Jennings
Executive Producer, Tom Yellin