A leading Supreme Court expert recounts the personal and philosophical rivalries that forged our nation's highest court and continue to shape our daily lives
The Supreme Court is the most mysterious branch of government, and yet the Court is at root a human institution, made up of very bright people with very strong egos, for whom political and judicial conflicts often become personal.
In this compelling work of character-driven history, Jeffrey Rosen recounts the history of the Court through the personal and philosophical rivalries on the bench that transformed the law--and by extension, our lives. The story begins with the great Chief Justice John Marshall and President Thomas Jefferson, cousins from the Virginia elite whose differing visions of America set the tone for the Court's first hundred years. The tale continues after the Civil War with Justices John Marshall Harlan and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who clashed over the limits of majority rule. Rosen then examines the Warren Court era through the lens of the liberal icons Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, for whom personality loomed larger than ideology. He concludes with a pairing from our own era, the conservatives William H. Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, only one of whom was able to build majorities in support of his views.
Through these four rivalries, Rosen brings to life the perennial conflict that has animated the Court--between those justices guided by strong ideology and those who forge coalitions and adjust to new realities. He illuminates the relationship between judicial temperament and judicial success or failure. The stakes are nothing less than the future of American jurisprudence.
In his second book this year (after The Most Democratic Branch), Rosen examines how temperament and personal style shape decision making at the U.S. Supreme Court. The author, a law professor and legal affairs editor at the New Republic, profiles four pairs of contrasting personalities: President Thomas Jefferson and Chief Justice John Marshall; Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Marshall Harlan; Justices William O. Douglas and Hugo Black; and finally Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Jefferson, Holmes, Douglas and Scalia are Rosen's exemplars of judicially counterproductive temperaments: they are ideologues, too invested in promoting the purity of their ideas to exert long-term influence on constitutional law. Far more persuasive for Rosen are Marshall, Harlan, Black and Rehnquist, distinguished by collegiality, willingness to compromise and subordinate their own agendas to the prestige of the Court. Most of the book consists of anecdotes about these eight judges, along with summaries of their most celebrated decisions and brief but perceptive explanations of their judicial philosophies. All this is entertaining, although it dilutes the book's stated focus on judicial temperament. Considering today's Court, Rosen believes Chief Justice Roberts will display a successful talent for consensus-building. As Rosen is well aware, a lot rides on the accuracy of this prediction. (Jan.)
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January 09, 2007
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