Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Five top books on US Supreme Court justices

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.

She discussed five notable books on US Supreme Court justices with Eve Gerber at The Browser, including:
Justice Brennan
by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel

Let’s move onto a biography of Justice William Brennan,who sat on the court from 1956 to 1990. Justice Antonin Scalia says Brennan was "probably the most influential Justice of the [20th] century". Although appointed by Republican President Dwight D Eisenhower, Brennan was the leading liberal on the court during an era of landmark decisions.

Brennan became emblematic of the court’s massive move to the left from the 1960s through 70s, and the tendency to constitutionalise every question that came before the court. When people criticise the “activist” terms of Chief Justices Earl Warren and Warren Burger, they mean the court’s move to find in the constitution the right to an abortion, the defence of affirmative action, support for [desegregation] busing. Brennan’s fingerprints are on that move. He had a hand in every single case that made conservatives crazy for decades. More so than anyone of that era, Brennan was seen as the mastermind – the one who was behind the scenes, working the room, getting the votes. He is thought of as the guy who choreographed the liberal takeover of the court. Ronald Regan’s attempt to course-correct from what was seen as an overreaching liberal court was a reaction to what Brennan succeeded in doing.

What do Brennan’s life and this biography tell us about what it takes to succeed as a Supreme Court justice?

One of the reasons I chose this book is that there was a version of Brennan that was firmly fixed in people’s minds after the book The Brethren came out. People saw Brennan as a back-patting, twinkly-eyed Irish guy who knew how to work a room. It became a caricature portraying Brennan as almost unprincipled, so ends-driven that he didn't believe in anything.

This is by far the most comprehensive Brennan biography to date. Stern and Wermiel go beyond the clichéd view of Brennan as someone who would make any deal with anyone to achieve five votes. Brennan was deft at getting consensus – there were certainly moments in his career where he would compromise on some principle that he held dear – but the caricature of him as the consummate politician isn't right.

The other thing about this biography that's very interesting to me is the tension between Brennan the person and Brennan the jurist. It’s fascinating reading about Brennan’s support for choice and his discomfort with the idea of female clerks. You think of Brennan as the figure racing to liberalise the country, but in his personal life he was deeply religious and quite conservative.
Read about another book Lithwick tagged at The Browser.

--Marshal Zeringue