Armand's Reviews > The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin
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's review
Sep 10, 2008

really liked it
Read in August, 2008

I’m not sure exactly what it says about me that the first book I picked up post-Bar Exam was Toobin’s accounting of the modern Supreme Court; regardless, I’m glad that I did. This well-researched accounting of Rehnquist’s reign is a fun survey of the politically and socially significant cases over the last thirty years. All the issues are here: abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, privacy, Congress’s power to regulate commerce, the role of foreign law, the war on terror, and, of course, Bush v. Gore. Toobin reserves his harshest criticism for this last issue, arguing that the justices “embarrassed themselves” in failing to de-politicize the judicial review process.

Relying on interviews with Supreme Court clerks, all of whom remain anonymous, Toobin moves through appointments and decisions, occasionally devoting a few pages along the way to each justice’s biography. I relished these sketches in particular – from Souter’s 19th century lifestyle to Thomas’s lack of self-awareness as he excoriates feelings of victimization in others but can’t seem to get past any slights made against him (or acknowledge the role that affirmative action played in his own ascendancy to the Court).

Toobin’s legal analysis seems directed for a layperson, but with enough detail to appease most lawyers, although at several points I craved a more fleshed out treatment. Regardless, it’s the behind-the-scenes descriptions that add the most value for those already familiar with the cases. The little details are both entertaining (the particular friendships among justices or late night poker games among D.C. elite) and frightening (the tech-wary justices shared a single internet connection at the time of Bush v. Gore).

Beyond these details, Toobin attempts to develop a few themes, principally the rise of the Federalist Society, and conservative scholarship in general, as a response to the Warren Court’s assertion/expansion of civil liberties. Like a laser, this movement is focused on abortion, and it’s through this lens that we get to know most of the Court’s members. The sophistication with which justices are now chosen, vetted, and appointed, seems to have further politicized the Court, making a change in membership the principal method of changing the law. It’s this lack of lively debate – particularly among the justices who retreat to their chambers and rarely seem to discuss cases with one another – that was most shocking. Questions posed during oral argument seem to be a primary method of persuasion, directed just as much to influence other justices as to press an appellant on an issue. It’s details like these that lead to some fun critical thinking (e.g., maybe Thomas’s reticence during oral argument is less a sign of some sort of anti-intellectualism and more a symptom of his isolation on the Court). If you have an interest in the law, you’ll appreciate these tidbits and enjoy thinking about the justices and key cases in a new light.
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Greg Sounds great, and compliments on a beautifully written review. I will have to pick this up sometime. It sounds like a fascinating look inside the SCOTUS judicial process, which is esp. useful because at this point it seems like the personal views and proclivities of the justices probably have more legal significance than their judicial philosophies. Or can the two even be separated?

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