I’d like to say that I’m one of those people who could always name the nine justices of the Supreme Court and that I’ve stayed abreast of court cases. Sadly, I have not been one of those people. However, at the moment, I am. After reading this book, I’m confident that I will be much more aware of what’s happening at the Court, including what nominees might be on the table to replace retirements each time we elect our President. I can name the nine with confidence, and I should be able to name the justices of the last 50 years with decent accuracy. This book reads more like a novel than a history of the court, exposing the political side of the justices’ world as well as the varied personalities (from Clarence Thomas who appears to say little or nothing to his fellow justices to Sandra Day O’Connor who seemed to hold the court together in so many ways). Though the justices often scathe with anger toward each others’ interpretations of the Constitution as they discuss and write their opinions, many of them get along quite cheerily outside of the Court, playing monthly poker or ringing in the new year together. That’s the epitome of separating work from friendship—I wish I were better at personally embracing those whose opinions and politics are diametrically opposed to my own.
Toobin traces the political sway of the court from the very liberal Warren years to the emergence of the conservative far right that continues to gather steam. What’s surprising is the number of justices appointed by Republican Presidents that ended up interpreting cases in a much more liberal manner than they “were supposed to.” O’Connor is probably the best example of this. She was more an independent than a Republican, and by the end of her career, she felt that the current GOP leadership had “led her party and the nation in directions that she abhorred.” She called Bush “arrogant, lawless, incompetent, and extreme.” David Souter, another Republican nominee ended up siding with the liberals in nearly every case. Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, believes the Constitution should be interpreted today just as it was when it was drafted. The federal government regulated nothing back then and should regulate nothing today. Never mind the fact that today’s lobbyists didn’t exist back then and that states can easily be bought off by corporate interests. I think Thomas would be perfectly okay with people dying in the streets, drinking polluted water and breathing toxic air, as long as the federal government didn’t try to intervene. According to Toobin, Thomas, Alito, and Scalia’s agenda (and that of the conservative movement) is to “reverse Roe, expand executive power (as long as the President is Republican), welcome religion into the public sphere (as long as that religion is Christianity), and speed executions. I don’t think Roberts and Kennedy are quite in that court. At least I hope not. At any rate, I’ll certainly watch cases and appointments much more carefully now that I have a better handle on the workings of the Court. This book is a great read, much more interesting and suspenseful than one might think for a thoroughly researched and detailed book about The Supreme Court. (nonfiction)