To most Americans, the Supreme Court is the most mythic branch of government. They’re like early 19th century baseball players whose feats seem more folkloric than real. This makes sense. We rarely see the justices on television, since cameras are not allowed during hearings and their deliberations are in private. Meanwhile, their decisions are often the ultimate say in any constitutional manner.
We rarely get a peek behind the curtain. Bob Woodward’s seminal “The Brethren” did that for a brief period of the Warren Burger Court. William O. Douglas’ memoirs are probably some of the most readable works by any American political leader. But if you really want to understand how the court works, how personalities play off each other and what are the real fault lines, then Jeffrey Rosen’s “The Supreme Court: the Personalities and Rivalries that Defined America” is the book for you.
This is the third in a series of 15 books every American should read. The initial post in the series took a look at James W. Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me.”
While Woodward is one of the great political chroniclers of all time, Rosen is a law professor, constitutional scholar and Supreme Court expert.
Rosen’s book, through four historical rivalries, explains how the court has changed over the centuries, how constitutional interpretation has evolved at times, and what makes a great justice. It’s brief, and not that heavy. It reads as easily as a John Grisham novel.
Maybe the most instructive aspect of Rosen’s book is who he pairs off as rivals. It doesn’t breakdown along partisan lines. As anyone who follows the court closely knows, the court’s history is riddled with strange bedfellows.
Let’s look at the last pairing in particular.
That rivalry is of two recent justices. It’s not Clarence Thomas against Ruth Bader Ginsberg, though. It’s former Chief Justice of the United States William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. Sure, both were Republicans. Sure both were nominated by Ronald Reagan (While Nixon nominated Rehnquist to the court, it was Reagan who elevated him to Chief Justice.
While these justices agreed on thousands of cases, their personalities couldn’t have been more different. While both of them wanted a revolution that would rebuke the liberal gains of the Warren and Burger courts, Rehnquist wanted to build concensus; Scalia wanted to prove a point. Rehnquist was willing to work with others on the court and moderate some of his beliefs if it meant long term gains. Scalia was more than happy to write a dissent.
The last rivalry wasn’t the only interesting pairing. The first one included a non-Justice. Rosen pairs off the Federalist John Marshall, the court’s most important Justice, and Anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson.
That battle, which Marshall eventually won, shaped this country profoundly.
Truly, any American who wants a better understanding of how the court – and the country – ended up as it has, needs to read Rosen’s book.
The Brethren: Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong
My Beloved World: Sonya Sotomayor
Five Chiefs: John Paul Stevens
Supreme Conflict: Jan Crawford Greenberg
Closed Chambers: Edward Lazarus
Supreme Power: Jeff Seshol