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Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir
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Monthly Book Discussions > November 2011: "Five Chiefs" discussion

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JudgyK I'm starting this one today- excited!


JudgyK I'm totally obsessed with this book. I read The Nine by Toobin a few years ago, and really enjoyed it. This one is different. Toobin's book was a look at each of the justices through a number of stories. It was gossipy, and definitely advanced Toobin's liberal views, and he clearly has no love for Scalia or Thomas.

By contrast, Justice Stevens' book so far (I'm on p.105) is exceptionally balanced. He acknowledges not liking some people, but then seems to take a step back and think about WHY he didn't like them. It seems like he often concludes that his dislike is irrational, and says so. It's also a much more personal account. Toobin's a hell of a journalist, so his book was a bit more readable, I guess, than Five Chiefs. Five Chiefs is scholarly, and full of long chapters and wordy anecdotes. (Don't think I didn't notice his use of punctilious! How Cardozo of him)

BUT, parts of this book are seriously cracking me up. I have no idea if it's justified or if it's just the way I'm looking at them. The "diversity" discussion on pp.87-89 made me laugh out loud. He and his partners were "diverse" because each played a different sport at a different top-tier university in undergrad, had different jobs during WWII, and each graduated at the top of his class from a top-tier law school? That's DIVERSE? HAHAHAHAHA. It was a bit more believable when he pointed out the religious differences and location in Chicago differences between the three men, but the first descriptions made me giggle a whole lot.

I also read the portion of his discussion of Brown v. Bd. of Educ. on pp.99-100 as a straight-up dissent to any and all claims of "originalism" as a way to interpret the constitution. Part of that is because I saw Justice Stevens speak at a retirement gala in his honor and all he discussed were the four big gun cases and he RIPPED the originalism thing apart during his talk, so I suspect this is similar. But I think he made a really good point about how "The fact that supporters of the Fourteenth Amendment may not have intended to put an end to segregated grammar school education -- or may not have realized that the amendment would do so -- does not provide an acceptable reason for limiting the scope of the fundamental principle of equality embodied in the equal protection clause." That seems to me to be the most straight-forward and understandable argument against originalism that I've ever heard.

At the same time, Stevens is obviously not a bastion of liberalism by any means. He clearly points out that on all things economic he agrees with Bork and Posner. It's interesting to see the differences between 1940s-1960s Republicans and current ones, but also note the similarities on economic policy.

Anyway. Lots of thoughts. And they're still not quite clear so I apologize for this comment being all crazy and stuff.

How are you all liking it?


Mona Jill wrote: "I'm having the hardest time getting into this one. I love him and his adorable bow ties, but for whatever reason I'm struggling with this first part about the history of the Chief Justices. Blargh."

I'm glad you said that, Jill, because that's how I've been feeling. I've taken a break from the book because the first two sections were such a struggle to get through for me (and also because I'm afraid if I put Middlemarch on hold for too long, I won't finish it this year). But I have to say that those first two sections didn't really endear the book to me and I'm kind of dreading the end of my break.

But Amie's enthusiasm is encouraging. I have a couple of days left in my break, I'll let you know how it goes when I pick it up again.


JudgyK Jill wrote: "I'm having the hardest time getting into this one. I love him and his adorable bow ties, but for whatever reason I'm struggling with this first part about the history of the Chief Justices. Blargh."

I thought that part moved pretty quickly? Just a quick overview of the major cases and changes to court procedure during that time and then into the good stuff. But I'm also a total geek for things like "the offices moved around because justices now got 4 clerks instead of 1 or 2" and "there are spittoons at each chair in the courtroom", so.. who knows. I might find HORRIBLY BORING things to be interesting.


Mona Update: I'm now in the middle of the Warren Burger chapter and am finding the book more interesting, particularly Stevens' anecdotes regarding the justices (chiefs and otherwise) as well as the tidbits he throws in about the day-to-day operation, customs, and traditions of SCOTUS.

I'm also becoming more accustomed to the format he's chosen - overviews of important cases, where he was in his own career at that time, and his experiences with the chief justice when he finally joined the Court. I'd like to know more about a few of the justices and chiefs he mentions but he does say at the beginning that multiple volumes could be written about each chief justice. Maybe my expectations going in were too high - there is only so much that a book of this length can accomplish.


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