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Packing the Court: The Rise of Judicial Power and the Coming Crisis of the Supreme Court

3.52  ·  Rating Details  ·  144 Ratings  ·  35 Reviews
From renowned political theorist James MacGregor Burns, an incisive critique of the overreaching power of an ideological Supreme Court

For decades, Pulitzer Prize-winner James MacGregor Burns has been one of the great masters of the study of power and leadership in America. In Packing the Court, he turns his eye to the U.S. Supreme Court, an institution that he believes
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published June 25th 2009 by Penguin Press (first published 2009)
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Apr 26, 2016 Matt rated it it was ok
America is a nation of laws and litigants. We look, more than any other place it seems, to our courts to settle disputes. This harkens back to our Puritan forefathers, who thought courtrooms a better alternative than blasting away at each other with blunderbusses. Thus, instead of shooting your neighbor over a disputed property line or a poorly constructed big-buckled hat, you could take him before a magistrate. Heavy reliance on the judicial system is the great cultural trait bequeathed to us b ...more
David Bales
Dec 04, 2015 David Bales rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2015
The liberal historian of the century, James MacGregor Burns, wrote this book when he was in his 90s, tracing the history of politics on the Supreme Court and the desire of presidents to "pack" the court with justices who saw the Constitution as they did; this is nothing new, and started in the days of the Federalists and the Jeffersonians in the eighteenth century. Great chapters on how the court seized the doctrine of "judicial review" in the Marbury vs. Madison case in 1803, (something never m ...more
Jun 14, 2015 Stephen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I don't agree with his premise that the Supreme Court's power to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional is not supported by the Constitution and solely a power grab by John Marshall in 1803's Marbury v. Madison. However, it is a nice history of how politics has influenced appointments and decisions throughout the years. And it makes me think even less of our current court, if such a low level is possible.
Jun 29, 2014 Al rated it it was ok
The first part of the book was very informative...a well written history of the evolution of Supreme Court. Starting at the Reagan years, however, it became increasingly partisan, culminating in a ridiculously biased viewpoint of the George W. Bush years. The culmination was when he complained in the chapter on Bush's appointments that the Justices were too eager to side with Bush, and then complains in the last chapter that the same Justices ignored the electoral "mandate" of Obama.... While th ...more
Gerry Connolly
Aug 22, 2014 Gerry Connolly rated it really liked it
Packing the Court is James MacGregor Burns' penetrating look at SCOTUS. For most of our history the Court has been a reactionary and unaccountable force in American life. Sound history.

Burns' treatise is grounded on John Marshall's breathtaking assertion of the court's role as final arbitrator of constitutional review. The fact that no such power exists in the Constitution seems not to bother "originalists" like Antonin Scalia. They just made it (the assertion of the power to overturn duly passe
Amber Dunten
May 28, 2016 Amber Dunten rated it really liked it
2016 vreading challenge: a non-fiction and fiction about the same topic (read together with QBVII).

As an attorney, I found Packing the Court a highly interesting read not just for attorneys, but for anyone interested in the history and politics of the Supreme Court. Historian/author Burns makes no bones of his progressive bias, but you should not let his relatively mild editorializing put you off. Burns' credentials as a historian, political scientist, presidential biographer, and author are imp
Lis Carey
Sep 22, 2012 Lis Carey rated it really liked it
This is an intentionally opinionated history of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

Burns brings his considerable historical knowledge and literary skill to bear on what has sometimes been the most respected institution in American government, and at other times derided as partisan and backward-looking. As he traces its development from the words in the Constitution and the brilliant, energetic, ambitious, and forward-thinking John Marshall, through to today's Roberts Court, it bec
Sep 13, 2011 Peter rated it liked it
Shelves: history, audio-book, law

An interesting look at the problem of the growing power of the Supreme Court, beyond the framework of the Constitution. Burns, an emminent historian, brings the reader rigth through the history of the Supreme Court, from its frameing to the present. He is concerned about the growing power of the court, the one democratic element of the American government system, and its power to determine policy, law, and direction of the country. Clearly, the framers did not intend for such a powerful judicial
May 18, 2011 Liam rated it liked it
"'If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas == that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the com ...more
Aug 01, 2009 Kcraybould rated it liked it
Packing the Court, by James MacGregor Burns, is a frustrating book. On the one hand, it is a very readable, often fascinating history of the Justices of the Supreme Court, written from the perspective of a researcher interested in how the uneven time frame Justices get selected in affect the court and the other branches' response to the sometime out of touch Court. It has a great deal of interesting information about the Justices, the weird process that got them too the court, and the intricate ...more
Amaury A. Reyes-Torres
Dec 04, 2012 Amaury A. Reyes-Torres rated it really liked it
This book was better than I expected. My conclusion: just like Von Clausevitz once said "war is the continuance of politics by other means", I content judicial review is the continuance of politics by other means.
This book deeply explores the problems of when politics invade law and the other way around. It is interesting that one of the most respected institution in world, use judicial review for goals other than to make our constitutional democracy works, except in especific times of the mode
David Szatkowski
Aug 16, 2015 David Szatkowski rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The author examines the history of SCOTUS and its impact on politics from the foundation of the Court to now. The author challenges common impressions of the Court, history of the Court, and constitutional function of the Court. While I did not always agree, I found the book definitely worth reading and highly thought provoking.
Aug 08, 2010 Jb rated it really liked it
Founding Fathers were concerned about giving and taking power to the electorate when they wrote the Constitution. As patricians, they were fearful of mob rule so therefore included various checks and balances to power. Supreme Court license to overrule acts of Congress wasn’t granted. That was left to an early decision by the Court itself to decide and probably a wise one if limited. But sometimes the historically politically active conservative Court has overruled economic and social progress o ...more
Brandon Forbes
Nov 20, 2009 Brandon Forbes rated it liked it
Burns hardly portends to objectivity in this book. It's more of a lefty screed against the general conservative trend of the Supreme Court. Of course, since I agree with most of his views, I didn't mind that much.

Outside of the historical overview of the court that takes up most of the book, he makes a political claim that the judical review instituted in Marbury v. Madison should be challenged by a strong executive. Ironically, he rails against the Bush administration for promoting a strong exe
An interesting historical review showing that the Supreme Court has always acted in a political and partisan fashion, and that the threatened court packing in FDR's time was nothing new. I had never realized that the Court had been expanded and contracted numerous times before then, to achieve political ends.

What I did not expect was that there was very little about "the coming crisis" - a few pages with a suggestion to curb the power of the Supremes.

Overall, though, I liked it and learned a fai
Some good information, but this volume was too opinionated for my opinion. Burns may be a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, but a more even-keeled approach to the history of the Supreme Court would have made this more enoyable for me. Still, it does cover the heavy-hitters in judicial history (Marshall, Taney, Warren, Burger, Hughes, Frankfurter) well. And, of course, it's not favorable at all to the recent court.
Aug 28, 2009 Erin rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Nice history of the Court and its inherently political situation. Particularly good in showing how misleading and dishonest the political terms "activist judges" and "originalism" are as used by liberals and conservatives. Wish he would have expounded on his proposal at the end--he spends mere pages calling for a revolution, which was interesting but really needed several more chapters to properly unpack.
Aug 17, 2010 Jrohde rated it really liked it
well written review of the Court since its inception with emphasis on its role in judicial review and its very strong influence by political forces. His final chapter is a strong contention for what seems to me an impossible suggestion: to reverse the right of the court to rule on the constitutionality of new legislation. It seems to me that is its main function.

very easy read and informative
Robert Wechsler
May 20, 2013 Robert Wechsler rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
An excellent history of the Supreme Court, with an emphasis on the selection process, and the way this was used over the years to skew the court one way or the other. Burns takes sides, but this primarily affects his tone, not the content. I hadn’t realized how much railroad interests controlled the court for many decades. The book was a real eye-opener in many ways.
May 28, 2010 Josh rated it really liked it
While a thorough and well-written history of the Supreme Court, the last chapter is a bit of a diatribe that seems oddly disjointed, as if it was added in a weekend after discussing the topic of Judicial Review with a salon of counterparts. Overall a fine text, as I intend to assign it forr summer reading for all rising Juniors in my department.
Tom Lawson
Sep 06, 2009 Tom Lawson rated it really liked it
This is a clear, and passionate, history of the Supreme Court and its mostly anti-progressive, anti-democratic tendencies. Some great stuff on the dangers of pure theory versus experience-based practice. Flawed by a little too much on Burns' previous theories of transformational leadership
Glen Demers
A great history of our supreme court. Shows how the judicial branch who's members are appointed to life terms, provides a needed balance to the executive and legislative branches, who's membership changes with every election cycle and are prone to the whims of populist movements.
Jan 17, 2010 Sarah rated it it was amazing
This is an excellent book, but requires a more sophisticated knowledge of the history of politics in America and how that translated for each president. Well worth the read and a cery powerful picture of how important the Supreme Court justices are in shaping America.
Daniel DeLappe
Sep 24, 2009 Daniel DeLappe rated it did not like it
What a light weight book. This book was a semi-interesting read about the Supreme Court if you do not want to read anything with depth and good history. Then you hit page 250 and it is another tiresome screed on George Bush. What a waste.
Mar 15, 2012 Tiffany rated it really liked it
Required reading for school, but still worth the time. A summary overview of Supreme Court appointments, politics, and landmark cases from Washington's presidency through G.W. Bush. Wishing we still had Holmes and Brandeis on the bench.
Jeff Raymond
A history of the Supreme Court in regards to judicial activity and executive response. Falls into a lot of the historical traps that we take for granted, but it was still a really interesting and fun read. I recommend overall.
Blake Maddux
Jan 26, 2010 Blake Maddux rated it liked it
3 1/2 stars. Nothing spectacular, but an easy read with a lot of info, and a provactive - if unlikely to applied - solution in the final chapter.
Mar 06, 2011 Laura rated it really liked it
The middle definitely faltered, but I overall enjoyed it. The end was fantastic - great history, good writing, thoughtful conclusions.
May 15, 2012 B rated it liked it
Shelves: own
Pretty blah history of the Supreme Court throughout time. Seen this before. Conclusion not really supported by the history it presents.
Sep 25, 2009 Nancy rated it really liked it
Excellent. No one has ever been qualified for the Supreme Court and every appointment was based on political affiliation.
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An award-winning author of presidential and leadership studies, James MacGregor Burns was the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government Emeritus at Williams College and Distinguished Leadership Scholar at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. He received his bachelor's degree from Williams College and his Ph.D. in p ...more
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