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

The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin
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Oct 27, 08

bookshelves: law, politics
Read in September, 2008

When I was younger, I was always awed by the iconic and magisterial Supreme Court. A perfect emblem of the mysterious Judicial Branch, the Supreme Court and the men and women who inhabit its corridors is the least well known of all of our halls of government. As I learned in law school, the Supreme Court, while still worthy of our veneration, is also a very human institution and as such, quite fallible. If as we learn that all political questions eventually become legal questions, the converse is also true that all legal issues also have political undertones.

In this book, Toobin does a masterful job of pulling back the curtain of the mysterious and powerful Supreme Court, especially concerning the very human foibles of its recent Justices. Almost certainly, folks talked (NY Times speculation of O’Connor and Breyer is no doubt accurate), one does not get a portrait quite so complete without really well-placed sources. I think the book is worth reading solely for the rather interesting anecdotes about people for whom most of the country knows so little. Souter’s monkish existence, how Thomas’ personality was and was not changed by his conformation hearing, the quiet strength and wisdom of Stevens, Breyer’s technocratic nature and his belief in the powers of persuasion, the almost annoying perfection of Roberts, it is all in here, plus a whole lot more.

One of the central elements of the book is that the Supreme Court has been an institution, despite those of both the right and left who would argue otherwise, which has been remarkably moderate in its decisions. The Justice’s pronouncements on abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, homosexuality, religious symbols in the public sphere, torture/enemy combatants, etc. have been remarkably centrist and almost identical to the political winds of the country as a whole. What Toobin does an outstanding job explaining, though, is that it is the personnel of the Court itself that sets its direction. No one was more emblematic of that moderation than Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Some might remember her joy over the eventual selection of George W. Bush as President in 2000; however, as this book points out, that joy was quickly tempered after W proved to be neither very compassionate nor really much of a conservative.

New winds are blowing, though, and there is no doubt that the Court itself has drifted towards the right of center. Some, including myself, may not like this very much, but quite simply that is why we have elections in this country. As one reviewer succinctly put it, Supreme Court Justices are not like disinterested umpires calling balls and strikes, they are intensely political beings whose decisions are heavily influenced by their own personal backgrounds. With the swing to the right on the court, how will the court respond to new challenges? Will the election move the Court even further to the right of center? Toobin tends to be a fan of compromise and centrism, but that is much easier to advocate when you are in the minority.



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