Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir, by Justice John Paul Stevens

Eight stars

After reading the recent judicial memoir by former Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, I was eager to get my hands on more of his writing. This piece serves as another such legal/judicial memoir, though its focus is much narrower and anecdotes fewer in number. Stevens uses this book to focus primarily on the five Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) with whom he had personal interactions, a daunting and interesting task in equal measure. Opening the book, Stevens gives readers a brief backstory about the other Chiefs and their legacy, from political and historical happenings durning their tenure at the Court, as well as some of the most important cases that came before SCOTUS. Stevens also spends a little time telling the reader how the role of Chief Justice differs from the other Justices on the Court and how more recent holders of the office used their role to shape America outside of the legal decisions made there. Once Stevens is ready to tackle those legal leaders who influenced him personally, the anecdotes come out, as well as discussions of key cases that came to the Court during these tenures. These cases are, at times analysed and their decisions commented upon with Stevens’ own editorialising. From the clerking with Justice Fred Vincent, Stevens developed his passion for all things SCOTUS. These were the post-war years of the Court, when constitutional discussions became more heated and complicated. Stevens speaks about the fraternal nature of clerks and Justices, working together effectively to push forward the legal agenda. The arrival of Earl Warren changed the flavour of the Court significantly, as can be seen through the analysis of many legal scholars. Many important cases were argued and decided under the Warren Court, pushing a liberal interpretation of the US Constitution. Warren Burger brought the pendulum swinging back and served as Chief when Stevens was eventually appointed to the Court. Some say that Burger sought to claw the more conservative and ‘law and order’ approach back to the Court, though Stevens is openly critical about the lack of structure and leadership that Burger had over the other Justices. He would often cajole and choose which side to support last, ensuring he was usually in the majority. He was also known to push for the vilification of certain Justices, turning them into the Court’s public face of a decision that would not parallel the sentiments of society. After a hasty departure by Burger, William Rehnquist took over in the latter part of the 1980s, a time when Stevens feels the Court came into its own and its impartiality was evident. Rehnquist was passionate about structure the the image of the Court, but also wanted to ensure the Justices had their voice. A stickler for the rules, Rehnquist stuck by time limits and did not enjoy repetition when it could be avoided. His death while still Chief struck all those around the Court very hard, but also paved the way for a new and vibrant generation, in the form of John Roberts. During the final years of Stevens’ tenure on the Court, Roberts sought to fill the shoes of his predecessor, while also carving out his own unique approach. Stevens explores many of the interesting cases that came before the Court during this time, including the reinvigoration of debates on capital punishment, the Second Amendment (gun control), and election spending. In his closing remarks, Stevens offers readers a view of life as a retired Justice and how the Court continues to respect those who left. While there was surely much change for Stevens and the country under these five men, there is sure to be a great deal more, especially once a woman assumes the role of Chief Justice. A great approach to the modern SCOTUS and great complimentary piece to The Making of a Justice, the new and thorough memoir to which I referred earlier. Highly recommended to those who love the law and its interpretation, as well as readers who have an interest in the Supreme Court.

I realise the law and constitutional discussions are not for everyone and this book is especially heavy on both accounts. Modern discussions of the core political rules of the American Republic can have many nuances that pull some readers in, particularly when juxtaposing the styles of the five men who served as Chief Justice during much of the discussion. Stevens seeks to draw many of the parallels, as well as keen differences here. The attentive reader will realise that the flavour of each Chief-led Court varies greatly on the types of cases that arrived and the other eight Justices who served alongside their leader. Stevens effectively presents cogent summaries of the cases throughout, a shorter summary that his full memoir, helping the reader to better understand many of the intricate details of the legal arguments, the struggles that occurred for the Justices as they sought to decide in conference, and society’s reaction to the rulings. While there is some technical nature to the cases and the overall narrative, it is easy enough to follow for those with an interest in the topics. Full of personal asides and anecdotes that are not captured in the decisions rendered from the bench, Stevens adds new angles to the memoir that may not be familiar to everyone. This added education adds depth and piques my curiosity to find even more in the coming months to understand the delicate balance between personalities and ideologies that shaped SCOTUS for the 35 years Justice John Paul Stevens was an active member.

Kudos, Justice Stevens, for a stellar, while also shorter, memoir that kept my attention from cover to cover. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece and will find the last piece you’ve written to discover even more of your views.

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