Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin

It was, for example, a running joke at the Court that outsiders frequently mistook Souter and Breyer for each other. No one could really understand why this happened, because the two bore little resemblance. One day when Souter was making his usual solo drive from Washington to New Hampshire, he stopped for lunch in Massachusetts. A stranger and his wife came up to him and asked, "Aren't you on the Supreme Court?"
Souter said he was.
"You're Justice Breyer, right?" said the man.
Rather than embarrass the fellow, Souter simply nodded and exchanged pleasantries, until he was asked an unexpected question.
"Justice Breyer, what's the best thing about being on the Supreme Court?"
The justice thought for a while, then said, "Well I'd have to say it's the privilege of serving with David Souter."

In The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, his history of the modern Supreme Court, its justices, and its decisions, Jeffrey Toobin writes a thoroughly enjoyable piece of nonfiction that could just as easily turn up in a book club's monthly selection as in a political science class at Carolina. It actually reminded me of some of the more pleasant books I was assigned to read in my classes. Toobin does what Peter Irons (The Courage of Their Convictions; A People's History of the Supreme Court) did before him: take the seemingly dry subject of the Supreme Court and make it an intriguing and entertaining read. Of course the secret to this is that the Supreme Court's decisions and deciders (yes, I'm going to use that blatant Bushism out of affection for the word, not the former president) are not really a dry subject at all.

Toobin's history starts with in the early 1980s and focuses on the Rehnquist Court. Toobin's decision to narrow his focus to the last three decades of the Court mainly involves his thesis, which is that the Supreme Court has become the forefront of the culture wars, especially during the Bush presidency, and that the unmistakable conservative view that the Court majority now holds is the result of a legal movement dating back to the Reagan presidency. Thus, Toobin is able to neatly bookend his history with the nascent beginnings of the Federalist Society in 1980 and the appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito in 2005.

Interspersed along the backdrop of the growing conservative legal movement is the real meat of the book: the biographies and anecdotes relating to the justices and their various roles in deciding the important case of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. I took a constitutional law undergraduate course (where I read Irons' Courage) and was familiar with many of the cases described in the book, such as Bowers v. Hardwick and its companion reversal decision, Lawrence v. Texas and Planned Parenthood of Southern Pennsylvania v. Casey. While Irons' and other Supreme Court books tend to focus on the plaintiffs' stories, Toobin's book was so interesting precisely because it focused on the decision-makers themselves. Anecdotes like the one excerpted above humanize the justices and make for good reading to boot.

Along with their personal stories, the book focused on the justices' votes in key decisions like those mentioned above, and at times even detailed the agonizing decsions justices have to make from time to time, such as breaking from a favored political party's view on a case in order to give the most constitutionally sound argument. The evolution of the justices' own views in response to life on the Court, international travel and a changing sense of what the majority of Americans believed was an interesting angle in itself. All the while, I found it reassuring that Toobin kept coming back to his central thesis, the gradual creep of conservatism through the legal and political spheres and its wash over the court in 2006 and 2007 due to Alito and Roberts. Call me boring, but appreciate when a non-fiction book can tangentalize (word?) and still return to a central argument to tie everything together.

I really enjoyed this book, and I'm glad Billy recommended it to me. The fact that it's been so long since my last post has no bearing on the readability of this book, but speaks more to the increasing demands on my attention of late. Enjoy this post boys, because the next one I write will be about a Nora Roberts trilogy! Don't hate.