Kressel Housman's Reviews > A People's History of the Supreme Court: The Men and Women Whose Cases and Decisions Have Shaped Our Constitution

A People's History of the Supreme Court by Peter Irons
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Jul 01, 12

bookshelves: history, law, non-fiction
Read from May 22 to June 29, 2012

This 500+ page legal history was a long slog, but worth it. I learned so much, I feel ready to take the LSATs. It was especially cool to have finished it on the very day that the Court upheld the Affordable Health Care Act. As you’ll see by my status updates, that’s not the result I predicted.

I read this book to supplement what I’m learning in paralegal school. With a title like A People’s History of the Supreme Court, I figured it would be more readable than legal opinions and textbooks because 1) “People’s history” made me think it was written for the layperson and 2) The subtitle, The Men and Women Whose Cases and Decision Shaped Our Constitution , made me think it told the human story behind the Court. Sometimes, both assumptions were proven correct. Sometimes, though, the book was as dull as any legal opinion or textbook. As another GR reviewer put it, “My law school texts have more razzle dazzle than this.”

Because it was such a long slog, I began doing status updates to keep myself going. I was tracking my milestones. And now that I’ve gotten to the end of the book, it seems like ages ago that I was reading the initial chapters about the framing of the Constitution. So I think the best way for me to review the book is to list all my status updates in chronological order. As you’ll see, the book really was a review of American history. I highly recommend it, but watch the PBS documentary on the Supreme Court first. It’s a pleasant and easy way to get some of the background that this book will fill out in greater detail.

May 24, p. 66 - I'm up to the framing of the Constitution, and boy was the 3/5 compromise disgusting! The small Southern states wanted the slaves to count toward the population, but wouldn't count them as humans when it came to legal rights. Those are the seeds of the Civil War right there. And all the arguments! It's almost like today, except that now, nobody compromises.

May 29, p. 111 - I'm finally done with the framing of the Constitution and up to the Marshall court! But I'm very glad I saw the Supreme Court documentary TV series. I couldn't get through this book without that background.

May 30, p. 126 - Finished McColloch v. Maryland, which created the Federal Reserve and asserted the "elastic clause" of the Constitution. On to Dartmouth v. Woodword.

May 31, p. 142 - I've finished with the Marshall court, and now I no longer lionize as much as I did. Marbury and McColloch were great decisions, but he often ruled in favor of property rights. As the author states, a man of Marshall's position who surely wasn't afraid to wield his authority might have done more to end slavery. He had the chance in "The Antelope" case.

June 1, p. 162 - I'm up to the Dred Scott case, which is so far the fastest reading of the whole book. This author was a civil rights activist, so slavery is getting special focus. I feel like such an ignoramus. I never knew about the Amistad - now I've got to read up on it!

June 4, p. 190 - The Civil War is over, and Lincoln is dead. You know, I saw that film, "The Confederate States of America," and I remember it singling out Judah Benjamin for inventing the legal concept that slaves were property not people, but it's much older than him, and Chief Justice Taney, who wrote the opinion in Dred Scott, seems just as bad if not worse.

June 6, p. 208 - I'm happy to have passed the 200 mark, but American history just gets worse and worse. It's post-Civil War, the Klan is waging terror in the South, and Cruikshanks, a Klansman, literally got away with murder because of the ruling of the Supreme Court. Outrageous!

June 7, p. 228 - I'm up to Plessy v. Ferguson now, but in fact, there were several Civil Rights cases that preceded it. In one, the case of a black woman on a train between states, Justice Harlan wrote that keeping her in a segregated car was an interference of interstate commerce, the defense ultimately used in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It only took 100 years! (More comments coming soon.)

June 7, p. 230 - Justice Harlan wrote the dissent in Plessy, for which he is celebrated in history, but the author compares him to Lincoln. Both men fought for the legal rights of blacks, but still saw them as inferior. Also, another discrimination case, Yick Wo. v. Hopkins, should have served as precedent to defeat Plessy, but it's a case largely forgotten today.

June 15, p. 306 - I've gotten through the tenure of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the justice I wanted to learn about most. Unfortunately, it turns out he had clay feet. I didn't realize the "falsely yelling fire in a theater" example was his. But the case he applied it to was a protestor of WW I, arguable if it really applied. I also read about the Schecter brothers' case, involving kosher butchers. Shameful!

June 17, p. 347 - Finished with the J- Witness cases, which got a fair amount of details since the author was able to interview Lillian Gobitas, whose refusal to pledge allegiance to the flag became so famous. Ironically, the first J Witness to do that was in Hitler's Germany, and then the people of that religion began doing it as a whole, refusing to pledge allegiance to any national symbol.

June 18, p. 362 - Read about how the Supreme Court upheld the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. After all this, I guess I shouldn't be surprised if they strike down the Affordable Health Care Act. After all, this is the age of Citizens United.

June 21, p. 381 - I've read Thurgood Marshall's pre-Brown strategy, ie deal with higher education and housing cases first, and now I'm in an interlude about the Red Scare. Boy, will I celebrate when I reach page 400!

June 21, p. 396 - I said I'd celebrate at p. 400, but I'm not quite there. Meanwhile, I'm reading Brown and the school cases that went with it. It's the fastest reading of the whole book; you can tell that this is the part that the author is really excited about. Part of their argument was based on self-esteem. They gave black kids brown-skinned and pink-skinned dolls and asked, "Which is the nice one?" Most kids chose white.

June 24, p. 420 - Read about the throngs of people, mostly blacks, who turned out for Chief Justice Earl Warren's funeral in 1974. Brown v. Board of Ed was the best decision the Court ever made. I wonder what they'll do with health care. My hopes aren't high.

June 28, p. 460 - Justice Harry Blackmun is most famous for writing the Roe v. Wade opinion, but I like what he said on Bakke, a challenge to affirmative action: "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. In order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently. We cannot - we dare not - let the 14th Amendment perpetuate racial supremacy."
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Reading Progress

05/24/2012 page 66
11.0% "I'm up to the framing of the Constitution, and boy was the 3/5 compromise disgusting! The small Southern states wanted the slaves to count toward the population, but wouldn't count them as humans when it came to legal rights. Those are the seeds of the Civil War right there. And all the arguments! It's almost like today, except that now, nobody compromises."
05/29/2012 page 111
19.0% "I'm finally done with the framing of the Constitution and up to the Marshall court! But I'm very glad I saw the Supreme Court documentary TV series. I couldn't get through this book without that background."
05/30/2012 page 126
22.0% "Finished McColloch v. Maryland, which created the Federal Reserve and asserted the "elastic clause" of the Constitution. On to Dartmouth v. Woodword."
05/31/2012 page 142
25.0% "I've finished with the Marshall court, and now I no longer lionize as much as I did. Marbury and McColloch were great decisions, but he often ruled in favor of property rights. As the author states, a man of Marshall's position who surely wasn't afraid to wield his authority might have done more to end slavery. He had the chance in "The Antelope" case."
06/01/2012 page 162
28.0% "I'm up to the Dred Scott case, which is so far the fastest reading of the whole book. This author was a civil rights activist, so slavery is getting special focus. I feel like such an ignoramus. I never knew about the Amistad - now I've got to read up on it!"
06/04/2012 page 190
33.0% "The Civil War is over, and Lincoln is dead. You know, I saw that film, "The Confederate States of America," and I remember it singling out Judah Benjamin for inventing the legal concept that slaves were property not people, but it's much older than him, and Chief Justice Taney, who wrote the opinion in Dred Scott, seems just as bad if not worse."
06/06/2012 page 208
36.0% "I'm happy to have passed the 200 mark, but American history just gets worse and worse. It's post-Civil War, the Klan is waging terror in the South, and Cruikshanks, a Klansman, literally got away with murder because of the ruling of the Supreme Court. Outrageous!"
06/07/2012 page 228
40.0% "I'm up to Plessy v. Fergueson now, but in fact, there were several Civil Rights cases that preceded it. In one, the case of a black woman on a train between states, Justice Harlan wrote that keeping her in a segregated car was an interference of interstate commerce, the defense ultimately used in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It only took 100 years! (More comments coming soon.)"
06/07/2012 page 230
40.0% "Justice Harlan wrote the dissent in Plessy, for which he is celebrated in history, but the author compares him to Lincoln. Both men fought for the legal rights of blacks, but still saw them as inferior. Also, another discrimination case, Yick Wo. v. Hopkins, should have served as precedent to defeat Plessy, but it's a case largely forgotten today."
06/15/2012 page 306
53.0% "I've gotten through the tenure of Oliver Wendel Holmes, the justice I wanted to learn about most. Unfortunately, it turns out he had clay feet. I didn't realize the "falsely yelling fire in a theater" example was his. But the case he applied it to was a protestor of WW I, arguable if it really applied.

I also read about the Schecter brothers' case, involving kosher butchers. Shameful!"
06/17/2012 page 347
60.0% "Finished with the J- Witness cases, which got a fair amount of details since the author was able to interview Lillian Gobitas, whose refusal to pledge allegiance to the flag became so famous. Ironically, the first J Witness to do that was in Hitler's Germany, and then the people of that religion began doing it as a whole, refusing to pledge allegiance to any national symbol."
06/18/2012 page 362
63.0% "Read about how the Supreme Court upheld the interrment of Japanese Americans in World War II. After all this, I guess I shouldn't be surprised if they strike down the Affordable Health Care Act. After all, this is the age of Citizens United."
06/20/2012 page 381
66.0% "I've read Thurgood Marshall's pre-Brown strategy, ie deal with higher education and housing cases first, and now I'm in an interlude about the Red Scare. Boy, will I celebrate when I reach page 400!"
06/21/2012 page 396
69.0% "I said I'd celebrate at p. 400, but I'm not quite there. Meanwhile, I'm reading Brown and the school cases that went with it. It's the fastest reading of the whole book; you can tell that this is the part that the author is really excited about. Part of their argument was based on self-esteem. They gave black kids brown-skinned and pink-skinned dolls and asked, "Which is the nice one?" Most kids chose white."
06/24/2012 page 420
73.0% "Read about the throngs of people, mostly blacks, who turned out for Chief Justice Earl Warren's funeral in 1974. Brown v. Board of Ed was the best decision the Court ever made. I wonder what they'll do with health care. My hopes aren't high."
06/28/2012 page 460
80.0% "Justice Harry Blackmun is most famous for writing the Roe v. Wade opinion, but I like what he said on Bakke, a challenge to affirmative action: "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. In order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently. We cannot - we dare not - let the 14th Amendment perpetuate racial supremacy.""

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Skylar (new)

Skylar Burris "I learned so much, I feel ready to take the LSATs." Ha ha ha. The LSAT consists of questions such as, "Joe is three seats behind Sarah who is two seats behind the person with the pink shirt who is one seat to the left of Bob who is five seats behind the girl with the organge pen. Who has the purple hat?"


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