In this collection of brisk yet nuanced thematic essays, renowned legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar examines the various ways different states have directIn this collection of brisk yet nuanced thematic essays, renowned legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar examines the various ways different states have directly or indirectly affected the development and interpretation of the Constitution. While not a comprehensive overview of either the states or the Constitution, Amar provides an interesting mix of topics, ranging from the headlining constitutional provisions that are regularly contested in courts and public discourse (the 2nd and 4th Amendments), to more obscure provisions that had their fifteen minutes of fame (the 25th Amendment and Article II's provision empowering state legislatures to set voting rules), to more general thoughts about regional and professional trends that have influenced judges and politicians throughout history. It's a thought-provoking collection that has something to offer for both amateur scholars and trained lawyers.
Two aspects of this book where Amar really shines is his conversational writing style and his heterodox approach to jurisprudence. He doesn't try to portray himself as perfectly objective, and he doesn't shy away from staking out strong positions, yet he approaches his chosen topics in ways that defy easy ideological labels. His perspectives on the 2nd and 4th Amendments are very different from what you will hear in the popular media, or even in law school, yet they are firmly grounded in textual analysis and historical context. His consideration of current Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy involves the usual examination of First Amendment and gay rights cases, but whereas some commentators mock Kennedy's predilection for flowery language, Amar finds something to admire in a high court judge who doesn't hide his opinions behind walls of legal jargon. None of this content feels watered down for a general audience, which is a very good thing; most people trying to learn more about American jurisprudence are forced to choose between the hopelessly oversimplified political screeds or the impenetrable thickets of dense law review articles.
The one thing that keeps me from awarding this book a full five stars is my uncertainty about the degree of overlap with Amar's other books. Amar freely admits that this book is related to some of his earlier works, which use different themes to explore the Constitution. I noticed a lot of footnotes that refer the reader back to those earlier books, which makes me wonder a little bit about how often Amar has gone fishing in these analytical ponds. But there are certainly enough controversies and divergent perspectives on the constitution and the history of jurisprudence (even in individual Constitutional amendments) to fill several books, and familiarity with Amar's earlier work may simply help the amateur legal scholar find his bearings a bit more quickly. I haven't read Amar's other books, but my interest in them has certainly been piqued. If those books are as good as this one, I know my time and money will have been well spent....more