Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir by John Paul Stevens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Books about the United States Supreme Court belong to my favorite genre of non-fiction. The nine justices wield enormous power, surpassing that of most, if not all, politicians. The results of their deliberations affect the country in a much deeper way than the election of a particular president, Carter or Reagan, Bush or Obama.
John Paul Stevens, retired since 2010, is one of my most admired justices, probably because of his lifelong tradition of moderate views and opinions. He had been considered a member of the more liberal wing of the Court, but his liberalism was of the kind I believe in - pragmatic and open-minded rather than doctrinal and extremist. Mainly though, I envy him that he could retire at the age of 90 in full command of his intellect. He published "Five Chiefs. A Supreme Court Memoir" at 91. A great majority of us will be enriching the soil at that age, and even if we are still vertical, we will be incoherent, incapacitated, and incontinent.
The main topic of the memoir is J. P. Stevens' assessment of five Chief Justices he knew personally or worked under: Fred Vinson, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts. The best quality of Justice Stevens' writing is again his moderation. He is not an admirer of his own intellectual brilliance (the trait displayed for instance by Justice Scalia). He praises the achievements of each Chief, and the criticisms of their decisions do not overweight the overall positives.
Of course, this is mainly a book about making the law of the country. Justice Stevens writes about the most important decisions reached under each of the five Chiefs, which makes it a great read for people interested in judicial history. The serious tone of the book does not exclude funny moments like one where Justice Stevens writes that "in [Rehnquist's and Scalia's] view, a life sentence in prison for overtime parking would be constitutional." The comment about Chief Justice Rehnquist putting four gold stripes on each sleeve of his robes is hilarious. And I love the psychological observation that during Mr. Stevens' oral argument before the Supreme Court in 1962 (13 years before he became a justice himself), the justices seemed to loom just inches away from him, while in reality they were seated over six feet away. So huge was the perception of their stature.
Good book and a worthy read.
Three and a half stars.
View all my reviews