Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined AmericaThe Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America by Jeffrey Rosen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a sucker for books about the U. S. Supreme Court, as I believe that the center of power in the United States resides in that highest court, so I have read Jeffrey Rosen's "The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries that Defined America" with greatest interest. The main theme of the book is how the individual justices differ by their judicial temperament, and how these differences affect their legacy.

Mr. Rosen organized the book around clashes of four famous pairs of personalities: Chief Justice John Marshall and President Thomas Jefferson in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Justices John Marshall Harlan and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., after the Civil War, Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, who served as Justices in the middle of the 20th century, and William H. Rehnquist (who eventually became the Chief Justice) and Justice Antonin Scalia in the late 20th and early 21st century. Mr. Rosen ends his book (published in 2007) with a chapter called Conclusion, in which he presents the current Chief Justice, John Roberts, and expresses high hopes about his future legacy.

The first two chapters offer a convincing reconstruction of myths surrounding Thomas Jefferson and Oliver Wendell Holmes. With skill and passion the author shows how wrong they had been in many aspects, and how the courts eventually overturned a large portion of their legacy. Justice Marshall, moderate in his views, left a much stronger imprint on the country than Jefferson, a radical majoritarian. Similarly, Justice Harlan's powerful dissents that championed the rights of minorities influenced the future courts much stronger than Holmes' brilliant rhetoric, in part because the latter was an unwavering supporter of unchecked power of majorities and radically skeptical of judicial power.

In the third chapter the author explains why Justice Black, a liberal hero turned strict constructionist, ended up to be more influential than W. O. Douglas, who embraced, as the author says, "freewheeling judicial activism that [...] marginalized his legacy". The penultimate chapter juxtaposes two conservative Justices of modern Supreme Court - the pragmatic Chief Justice Rehnquist versus strongly ideological and doctrinaire Justice Scalia. The author proposes that the imprint on the future of the Court left by the former is quite significant, while the latter's legacy will be negligible.

This has been a fascinating read, probably not least because Mr. Rosen's conclusions match my private views and my outlook on life. The older I am the more I prefer moderation over extremism and pragmatism over doctrinal purity. Also I am usually more concerned about not trampling on the rights of people who are in any kind of minority rather than about the majority's rights.

Four stars.

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