I keep circling back around to reading books about the US Supreme Court — it’s a topic I’ve been interested in for a while, most recently reading Rehnquist’s history. This new book from Jeffrey Rosen that serves as a companion to a new PBS Series of the same name, is very good.
Rosen focuses on judicial temperament, more than judicial philosophy — in other words, he focused on the way that justices interacted with each other. The book is in 5 parts — the first 4 look at pairs of contemporaneous figures (mostly justices): Marshall & Jefferson, Harlan & Holmes, Black & Douglas, and Rehnquist & Scalia. It finishes up by taking a look at our current Chief, John Roberts.
It’s all good stuff. The Marshall-Jefferson was a very stormy one, but set up the basics of the way our judiciary works (establishing judicial review, which has proven handy throughout our history :-)). I’d always assumed Oliver Wendell Holmes was an impeccable jurist — I suppose because so many things like schools are named after him — but it doesn’t appear that that’s true. The Civil Rights era of Black & Douglas is amazing — and a real broadening of basic American rights, whether justified in the constitution or not. And the path of Scalia and Rehnquist is interesting for obvious reasons.
I’m encouraged by the way that Rosen describes Roberts — as a Chief who’s interested in the Court acting as a Court, instead of a collection of academics each with specific opinions. He’s working hard to turn back the personalization of jurisprudence that goes hand in hand with the politics that threaten to overwhelm it.
Not my favorite book about the Court, but an interesting one nonetheless. If you have a few hours, though, I’d really suggest you catch the PBS series — illuminating.