A People’s History of the Supreme Court: The Men and Women Whose Cases and Decisions Have Shaped our Constitution, by Peter Irons

Nine stars

Long a fan of learning more about constitutional law, I discovered this major work by Peter Irons. In it, Irons seeks not only to take the reader through some of the key historical aspects of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), but also shed light on some of those who shaped the Court or were named in key cases throughout the storied history of the institution. Admitting in his introduction that he comes about this project with an inherent bias, Irons cautions the reader beforehand about what he will present, trying to be thorough but also realising there is limited space.

In the early part of the tome, Irons lays the groundwork for the Court by focussing his attention on the Republic and how it chose to craft its political foundation. In discussing the roles of various Founding Fathers, Irons details the fights to bring forth a strong constitutional document, as well as key set of amendments to the initial work product, in the form of a Bill of Rights. From there, it was the creation of a Supreme Court, which would sit and adjudicate the laws of the land, based on this core constitutional framework. While the early years proved slow and free from too many cases, key decisions came down from the Court that would forever shape the future of the country and its relationship with the other cogs in the political machine. With strong members of the Court, Irons argues that much could be done, though it was by no means a rubber stamping of decisions.

Moving into the era of slavery, where newer states in the Union sought to be ‘free’, the Court was forced to decide on key aspects of the practice, as well as how to define men of colour, particularly as citizens of the United States. Irons takes time here to discuss the fallibility of the Court, especially when handling such cases as Dred Scott. This mark on the Court will forever be seen, though the progress of thoughts and sentiments around racial equality did not come overnight.

Irons progresses through many cases of this kind through to the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th before turning to the theme of free speech, which emerged in the lead-up to the Great War. As Irons discusses, those speaking out against the War, particularly conscription, found their niche in challenging laws that violated the First Amendment. Phrases such as “announcing fire in a crowded theatre” became popular during Court decisions of this time. Irons continues delving into Court-based themes by exploring economic decisions surrounding the New Deal, FDR’s multi-pillared way of getting out from under the Depression in the early 1930s. Irons finds numerous cases that push the limits of this and FDR’s response to SCOTUS politicking from the bench.

This was by no means the end to all the legal and constitutional controversies seen in the United States. Flares ups related to Japanese internment, racial segregation, and abortion proved to be key cases that pushed the Court to its limits, pressuring the ideological sentiments of those who heard cases. Irons addresses this over the three decades in the book’s narrative that covers this time. The Court’s ever-evolving views can be significantly contributed to the changes of Justices on the Court. Irons shows how, during the Nixon and Reagan Administrations, faces less liberal in their views emerged, pushing some major issues into the unknown. Thus began some of the most troubling times for those who held onto the liberal judgments made by the Court in years past. Pushing through to the appointment of Samuel Alito, Irons exemplifies how the Court changed a few more times, under both Bushes and Clinton in the Oval Office. A truly remarkable piece that is a must-read for those with a passion for American constitutional law and politics. Recommended for the dedicated and determined reader who feels they can tackle this massive tome, as well as anyone wanting to see American history through new and liberal eyes.

While I have read many books on SCOTUS and its countless decisions, this book by Peter Irons is definitely unique. Shaped around his academic mentor, Howard Zinn, Irons seeks to replicate A People’s History of the United States—next on my reading list—which takes snapshots in time and expounds on some of the lesser known facts and players in the larger picture. Irons does well to give the reader more background and a thorough understanding of the machinery running around the case, rather than the large generalizations that history texts usual offer. Irons has done much research to give the reader a closer look into the lives of the Court’s many Justices, as well as biographical notes that help place their ascension to the Court in context. While this is greatly helpful, it pales in comparisons to the background offered about some of the key players in the cases, those whose actions or challenges to laws brought about the key cases that shaped American understanding of its constitutional document through the eyes of SCOTUS. This brings the vignettes to life and offers a new perspective for the curious reader, who can then read even more, should they desire. Anyone with an interest in constitutional law and history will marvel at the detail and how these pieces fit together nicely to tell the larger and more comprehensive story of the cases that shaped the nation. Irons mixes things up with longer chapters to tell of key aspects of Court decisions, alongside shorter ones that may lead the reader down a certain path. The overall effect is not lost on the attentive reader, as the narrative seeks to forge ahead through American political and legal history, following the breadcrumbs SCOTUS finds in the US Constitution. While the reading can sometimes be dense, the meatier parts are surely needed to lay the groundwork for later chapters and extrapolation by the keen reader who seek to apply things after the 2006 publication of this tome. In today’s America, one can only hope that precedent is not tossed by the wayside to bring about an ideological reset for those on the far Right. One can only wonder what Irons would have to say about some of the quagmires taking place in 21st century American legal realms. Then again, perhaps something is in the works to trump the #fakeTweet rhetoric raining down on smartphones across the land.

Kudos, Mr. Irons, for opening my eyes to much about the American political and constitutional history that has been delivered in my expansive education and personal reading. I will be returning to read more of your work, but first think it is time for Howard Zinn’s tome, which helped germinate the idea for this book.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons