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:

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: