The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America
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The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America

3.51 of 5 stars 3.51  ·  rating details  ·  348 ratings  ·  48 reviews
A leading Supreme Court expert recounts the personal and philosophical rivalries that forged our nation's highest court and continue to shape our daily lives



The Supreme Court is the most mysterious branch of government, and yet the Court is at root a human institution, made up of very bright people with very strong egos, for whom political and judicial conflicts often beco...more
ebook, 288 pages
Published January 9th 2007 by Times Books (first published January 1st 2007)
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Robert
This book taught me that Oliver Wendell Holmes was a real jerk.

Who knew? I knew he was a famous supreme court justice, and that a character in Bloom County was sort-of named after him (the wonderful African-American computer geek kid Oliver Wendell Jones), but it turns out that he was a devoted social Darwinist (a believer that the strong defeat the weak, and that this is a natural and good thing), worked against civil rights, and believed that the wishes of the majority should always prevail.

Th...more
Jean
Rosen, a professor of law at George Washington University, contends that a justice’s temperament is the crucial factor in determining that person’s effectiveness on the Court. He compares the temperaments of four pairs of historic rivals: John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson was not a justice, but he was Marshall’s key Constitutional rival), John Marshall Harlan and Oliver W. Holmes, Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia. Rosen contends that the man in...more
Mara
Here’s an interesting technique of historiography: match up pairs of historical figures, making sure that in each pair you agree with one, and disagree with the other. Then praise the one in almost every way, while denigrating the other. Lastly, declare that the first was on the side of truth and justice, while the other was merely self-serving. Rosen applies this rubric to pairs of Supreme Court Justices through the ages (although, oddly, he pairs John Marshall with Thomas Jefferson, who of cou...more
Kurt
This is probably the worst book about the Supreme Court that I have ever read. The structure is intriguing: Rosen looks at a few pairs of Supreme Court justices (or, in one case, Thomas Jefferson, who was not a justice but had an effect) and contrasts their temperaments. Ostensibly, he is making the point that a justice's temperament, specifically in a flexible willingness to compromise to achieve consensus, is the most important factor to the justice's long-term effectiveness. In practice, thou...more
Michael
I just finished listening to the audio version of this book read by Alan Sklar. Sklar has a marvelous voice that's perfect for this book.

Rosen's book analyzes the Supreme Court by shining a light on the personalities and judicial temperaments of key players in its history: Chief Justice John Marshall and President Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall Harlan and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, and in our own day William H. Renquist, Antonin Scalia, and John Roberts Jr. I enjo...more
David
I found this account of the Supreme Court far less engaging than "The Nine". Rosen's main point - that judicial temperament determines success on the court, in the sense that justices who work well with others have more influence - hardly qualifies as an earth-shattering insight. But it causes him to adopt an awkward structure for the book, sorting through history to pick pairs of judges, who are then analyzed in a series of artificial head-to-head comparison. The result seems forced, and not pa...more
Nicko
Aug 12, 2007 Nicko rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Lawyers
The real Justice League of America. This book gives a much needed perspective on how the Supreme Court has developed since the country began and gives the reader good insight into the personalities that shaped the Court. We tend to think of the Court only in terms of the present justices, but it is extremely revealing to gain an understanding of the dynamics among and between the many justices who have played vital and not so vital roles in the course of U.S. history. A primer to grasping how th...more
Tom
I didn't make it through listening to The Supreme Court. What I didn't like about this book is that it felt artificial and pushed. The book is based on Rosen's idea that how effective a justice is depends less on their ideology and more on their temperment. Rosen contrasts 4 pairs of justices (the exception being Thomas Jefferson, who obviously was not a justice) from different eras. He attempts to show that the rigid ideologues were ineffective, while the pragmatists and incrementalists had a m...more
Suzie
Companion book to the PBS series. Pairs of rival supreme court justices are discussed in each section of the book (though the first section pits Marshall vs. President Jefferson.) Rosen makes a case that pragmatic collegiality has been a more effective position to take on the court than idealism/solitude. The book focuses on personality over legal history/scholarship. This doesn't give you the WHOLE picture, and Rosen obviously favors certain justices over others... on the other hand, I definite...more
Thomas
Rosen emphasizes the difference between doctrinaire judges who try to impose their personal legal philosophy on the court and those who try to build consensus on the court, coming down firmly on the side of those judges who compromise their views for the sake of majority or unanimous decisions. He picks out pairs of justices whose personalities and philosophies contrast in a way that seems suspiciously contrived, as if they acted as they did to satisfy Rosen's thesis. It's almost as if Rosen is...more
Eric
The writing is engaging, which is frankly the only reason I gave it three stars. Otherwise, the structure, theme, and conclusions are very simplistic -- the stuff, really, of an undergraduate political science paper. The basic point is that justices who compromise, build bridges and have reasonable temperaments are more politically successful on the court than brilliant, arrogant intellectuals. And he makes his point through a boring compare-and-contrast method, e.g. Rehnquist is like this, Scal...more
John
An accessible peek into the inner workings and personalities of the SCOTUS through the examination of key rivalries that shaped the court. Through these anecdotes, Rosen argues that judicial temperament is a better indicator of long-term impact on American Constitutional law than ideological purity. Throughout the book, he champions those justices who worked for consensus and who placed the viability of the court over the vocal and often self-aggrandizing purists. I don't know enough about the h...more
Brian Bojo
This book seemed much shorter than the 240 pages it is. Rosen masterfully combines journalism, scholarship, and the dramatic elements of a fiction author to describe a series of personalities whose tenures on the Court were notable. As General Kagan approaches her confirmation hearings, I highly recommend this book to anyone who needs a reminder of the role of the Court in American life. Bonus: Rosen's interview with Chief Justice Roberts at the end regarding Roberts' view of the Court, how he h...more
Heather
This was a great book. It was a fairly short read but it covered the most influential figures on the bench. The author focused on temperament and how each judge's temperament changed and influenced the bench. Each chapter would compare and contrast two judges from the past to present.

I really enjoyed this book. It was interesting and the reader was able to see how individual personalities really did affect how they ruled and the political leanings of the Supreme Court.

I definitely recommend this...more
Johnp
I am *not* a big fan of Supreme Court books. I know it sounds silly, but the focus is always on the court cases and less on the personal side. This book is different. A companion to the PBS series on the Supreme Court, Rosen’s book has an interesting setup: he looks at four periods in the Court’s history and analyzes the different temperaments of judges in each period. What made this an interesting read for me was the focus on just two personalities in each of these four periods. It made for a v...more
Michelle
Mar 27, 2008 Michelle rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Attorneys
This book presents the history of the Supreme Court as viewed through the personalities of the Court's justices. Rosen makes a strong plea for the importance of judicial temperament, generally arguing that history favors the flexible, consensus-building, pragmatic, and personable justice over the justice that adheres strictly and rigidly to a particular judicial philosophy. The best implicit message of the book may have been that a Court made up of Scalias and Scalitos is a Court that will quick...more
Jeff
Jan 31, 2008 Jeff rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in constutional law and the history of the Supreme Court.
I originally bought this book in audio form to listen to on my frequent drives between Baton Rouge and Houston. I was only passingly interested in the Supreme Court before this, but I have bought four books on the subject since.

Told from the perspective of four pairs of personalities in various times in history and how their conflict shaped law and culture, the story moves along like a narrative novel while managing to be quite informative.

After reading this and The Nine, I am hooked on the Su...more
Emily
Obviously, I liked this book--he does a great job bringing various justices to life beginning with Chief Justice Marshall through to Chief Justice Roberts today. His point is pretty clear early on about the importance of judicial temperment, so that the book verges on pedantic occasionally. I also think you should take it with a grain of salt, especially if you haven't read a lot of the cases by these folks.
Bex
Nov 12, 2008 Bex rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Bex by: NPR
Say 4.5 stars. Fascinating comparison of 4 sets of men, beginning with the first star of the Supremes, John Marshall, versus Thomas Jefferson. Very easy to read; anecdotes to highlight the personalities and important decisions to explicate judicial temperament. Ends with Rehnquist v. Scalia with tidbits about other justices thrown in. Highly recommend.
Ann
I liked this book so much, I hope to listen to it again. It is very rich in terms of defining some of the principal issues that shaped the development of the United States and the principal actors, including, justices, presidents, etc. Some of issues never seem to go away or they morph into new situations. Human nature? Politics?
Emily
This book is split into 4 comparisons between justices and presidents. It's an intense read and sort of jumps around, so it was hard for me to stay focused, which is what you need to finish this book. It does do a good job and explaining each personality, whether or not you agree with the assessment.
Robert
Billed as the companion book to the PBS series on the supreme court. I found it very interesting. The author juxtaposes personalities on the court and compares their effectiveness. Technically the fisrt paring is not two justices but Jefferson and Marshall.
Dan Duran
Geared more towards academia than the casual reader, still provides an interesting look at what happens when judicial philospiphies collide. I found the section contrasting Justices Black and Douglas particularly interesting.
Mark
Good enough about rivalries and the lives of these pivotal justices (and 1 President)- John Marshall-Thomas Jefferson, John Harlan-Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Douglas-Hugo Black; and William Rehnquist-Anthony Scalia
Kevin Altman
Gives great insight into the REAL world of how the courts used to be....unbelievable things and behaviors regarding our state and federal supreme courts....a must read if into Political Science or Constitutional Law.
Brandon Shultz
This book did a great job of examining the evolution of the court through the pivotal times on the court by displaying the conflict between two justices and expanding it to look at the court as a whole.
Adam Rice
Well-written book that takes highlights the Supreme Court as an institution and considers how the justices' judicial temperaments can support or undermine the Court's institutional authority.
Steven Yenzer
Pretty enjoyable read about some of the famous figures of the Supreme Court. A nice look behind the scenes, and easy-to-read introduction to some of the finer points of Court-watching.
Delacey
Not as good as The Nine or as The Metaphysical Club, but a really interesting take on jurisprudence and judicial temperament and how they've shaped the legacy of the Court
Nancy
I wonder what non-lawyers might get from it. They wouldn't understand my little Mona Lisa smile through the Harlan/Holmes wars, the commerce clause battles, and so forth.
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