SharksWithLasers -- Seth Cooper

A CUTTING-EDGE BLOG FOR THE WORLD OF THE 21st CENTURY, Currently operated by Seth L. Cooper, a 27 year-old attorney in Seattle (sethlcooper at comcast dot net)

Thursday, March 18, 2004

REVIEW OF THE CHIEF JUSTICE'S BOOK: Below is a review of The Supreme Court (revised ed.) that I will be posting to Amazon very shortly.

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The Supreme Court (Revised and updated edition), Vintage: 2002.
By William H. Rehnquist


A Good Primer on the U.S. Supreme Court's History--Institutionally and Jurisprudentially (4 Stars)

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has recently revised and expanded his book on the history and operation of the US Supreme Court. The book comes in at around three hundred pages, and is accessible to a general reading audience. Yet, those trained in political science and the law can also benefit from this work, as it provides a nice overview of Supreme Court history and how the justices operate today.

In terms of history, the Chief Justice’s book provides brief discussion spanning from the Marshall court in the early Nineteenth Century until then end of the Warren court in the latter part of the Twentieth Century. Again, this work remains light in terms of doctrinal analysis, giving the orthodox views of cases as Marbury v. Madison (1803) and Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), and likewise giving standard, summary treatments to landmark cases like Lochner v. New York (1905) and the court’s Commerce Clause cases. The Chief Justice does a fine job in framing the historical backdrop and context in which cases like Dred Scott and Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952) were decided, discussing the Missouri Compromise and Kansas-Nebraska Act in setting up the former case and the Korean Conflict and labor disputes in the latter.

Since the Chief Justice was himself a Supreme Court law clerk for Justice Robert Jackson during the Youngstown case (aka the “Steel Seizure Case”), his discussion of that case serves the twofold purpose of covering a significant decision in separation of powers jurisprudence and describing the work of a clerk. Justice Jackson also figures prominently in the Chief Justice’s enjoyable summary of President Theodore Roosevelt’s failed “Court Packing” plan, as the book covers the history behind the appointments of many of the justices.

Being rather appreciative of Justice Jackson’s career and Supreme Court opinions, I longed for a more intimate portrayal of the man by his former law clerk, but I nonetheless realize that this book is too short for that, and likewise too short to go into detail in a great many of the areas that were touched upon. But I did enjoy his short biographical overviews of many of the justices who have served on the high court, including Joseph Story and Stephen J. Field.

For the most part, the Chief Justice gives a balanced look at the figures and cases of the court, but he does show his feelings about such cases as Korematsu v. US (1944) (an infamous Japanese internment case), as well as the Warren court’s general approach to constitutional rights guarantees for criminal defendants.

I found later chapters dealing with the Supreme Court’s administrative operations less interesting than the history, and his brief descriptions of more recent and current members of the court something read like a tourist brochure. Understandably and wisely, the Chief Justice likewise declines to discuss the events surrounding his own appointments and confirmations as well as major cases that have come before the Supreme Court during his own time as an Associate Justice and Chief Justice. (For a treatment of more recent cases and development of constitutional jurisprudence I recommend Judge Kenneth W. Starr’s First Among Equals: The Supreme Court in American Life.)

This newer edition is now available in paperback and it receives my recommendation.


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ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS: A prior post contains my review of Judge Starr's book.

Thus far I've not read any of the other books penned by the Chief Justice. They all seem to be written for a general audience, but can also be appreciated by those with a legal background. He has had an interesting tenure on the Supreme Court and I do hope that he writes a memoir.

(Downtown Seattle, WA)

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