Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices, by Noah Feldman

Nine stars

It has been said that the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) are like nine scorpions in a bottle. Never is that truer than after reading Noah Feldman’s book, in which he explores some of the precarious dealings those nine men had with one another throughout the 20th century. While Feldman does focus on four specific Justices, all chosen by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he makes the case that these men were unpredictable, both on and off the bench. The argument of FDR’s desire to shape the Court in his own image has long been held, though Feldman shows how the choice of four men in particular—Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and Robert H. Jackson—shaped the Court and America significantly with their decisions that spanned decades on the bench. However, Feldman does not simply parachute the reader into the middle of Supreme Court decisions, but rather builds a foundation through biographical vignettes of these powerful men, providing context into some of their decisions and the outside influences during key cases. Each man came from a vastly different background and held beliefs that creates the aforementioned unpredictability. From Frankfurter’s arrival as a teenage to the shores of America to Black’s membership in the KKK in order to win a seat in the Senate, Feldman shows how one’s past can differ greatly and yet still catch the eye of a man with the power to offer great rewards. Feldman also discusses some of the key FDR legal issues early in his presidency, including the court-packing bill that would have ensured a liberal court in his own image. Moving away from that, FDR had to choose men who would support his New Deal politics and turn the Court away from its conservatism. This paved the way for support the liberal democracy that would soon be paramount in contrasting with the rise of fascist views in Europe. As Feldman mixes biography with Court cases, the reader has a better understanding of how America evolved—or devolved—during key events in history, the war, and social expression. One cannot miss the inherent political side of the SCOTUS, even as it purports to be the neutral branch of the American political system. Justice Douglas is shown throughout to align himself with those who could grant him a potential run for high office, while Justice Jackson used his ties to win a temporary leave from SCOTUS to serve as chief prosecutor in Nuremberg. Feldman takes the reader on this journey and explores how—due to their life appointment—FDR’s appointees continued to shape the legal landscape long after the president’s death. Full of captivating stories and constitutional discussions about how American jurisprudence sought to weight rights against policy enactment, Feldman shows how the law is not as clear-cut as it may seem—including detailed discussion of Brown v. Board of Education and the negotiation to get a unanimous decision. Recommended to those who love all things legal, especially constitutional, as well as the reader who has a passion for 20th century American history.

This book was recommended to me by a friend who knows how much I love constitutional discussions. I have long loved reading about SCOTUS interpretation of the law and how decisions are reached by the nine sitting on the bench. Feldman goes deeper though, by not only providing the reader with a biography of the four men he will use as judicial filters throughout, but also providing an ongoing narrative about their lives, the interactions they had, and the backdrop of history as it unfolded. While today’s SCOTUS may appear to be lapdogs with decision-making to appease an ideological bent, Feldman effectively shows how the Court of the day was less predictable in its decisions and rationale, looking to legal arguments and not a pre-destined checklist of how a Justice will rule. Interestingly enough, Feldman also shows that Justices can flex their own legal muscle when they attain a seat on the bench, no longer forced to spew forth the rhetoric of the president who selected them (or the groups that helped push them into the limelight, as with Justice Black). Feldman’s discussion remains on point and his narrative is clear, turning the delivery of fact and anecdote into a story-like presentation rather than dry, textbook discussion. The tome is easily understood by the layperson seeking to know more or better understand key decisions, particularly during the apparent suspension of rights throughout the Second World War and the social instability of the early Cold War years. Fantastic in its presentation, Feldman leaves the reader wanting to know more, with a text full of citations that dangle more information on many topics. I hope to find more of Feldman’s writing to explore legal history and SCOTUS discussions in the near future.

Kudos, Mr. Feldman, on a stunningly easy book to digest while also tacking the tough topics. You have proven the ‘scorpion’ argument well and I cannot wait to see what else you have in store for readers.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: