Review

The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America

by Jeffrey Rosen



America's fascination with the law has been a long-standing love
affair that traces its roots to an era before the birth of the
nation. Although many seem to think that attraction to the law is a
recent phenomenon born of television and 24-hour news, history
tells a different story. As far back as the early 18th century and
the trial of John Peter Zenger, the U.S. has been enthralled by
courtroom battles. While television coverage magnified cases such
as Terry Schiavo and O.J. Simpson, other moments in history such as
the Scopes Monkey Trial and the trial of Fatty Arbuckle were the
focus of equally intensive media scrutiny. 

Americans love the law, but many citizens lack knowledge of the
operation of one significant legal institution: the United States
Supreme Court. Indeed, more of us recognize Judge Judy than the
nine current sitting justices. The Court itself contributes to the
mystery of its operations by a long tradition of cloistered
behavior. Little by little, more information about its workings and
personalities seem to be coming into the public eye.

THE SUPREME COURT: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined
America, by Jeffrey Rosen, is a companion book to an important
four-hour television series on the Supreme Court produced by WNET
in New York. Knowing how the Court was created and how it operates
helps make the institution more understandable and relevant.

Rosen, a professor of law at George Washington University and a
reporter for The New Republic, examines four pairs of
influential personalities who shaped the Court. Chief Justice John
Marshall and President Thomas Jefferson had contrasting visions on
what political role the Court should play as our nation grew.
Justices John Marshall Harlan and Oliver Wendell Holmes represented
divergent views on the relationship between minority rights and
majority rule. Justices Hugo Black and William Douglas were both
liberal advocates in the Warren Court era. Finally, Chief Justice
William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia were conservative jurists with
far different approaches to building consensus on the Court.

As he frames the debate and analyzes these figures, Rosen cements a
point essential to understanding the Supreme Court. It is far more
than legal scholarship and judicial philosophy that shape the Court
--- it is the personality and interaction of the individual members
at a specific moment in history that created the institution that
to this day remains an exciting and critical cog in the workings of
American government.

THE SUPREME COURT is not a scholarly work of jurisprudence and does
not claim to be. In some ways it reflects the central point of its
author that the Court is more than legal books, lawyer's briefs and
judicial opinions. Rosen ends his book with an enlightening and
illuminating interview with the nation's newest Chief Justice, John
Roberts. Chief Justice Roberts very well may represent a
generational change in the workings of the Court. He seems to
understand that the Supreme Court in the 21st century must begin to
accommodate modern technology. More significantly, he appreciates
the history of the position he occupies and the importance of his
task as Chief Justice.

Rosen concludes that Roberts recognizes "The Court has best served
itself and the nation when the individual justices have been
willing to subordinate their own interests and agendas in the
interest of building judicial consensus and institutional
legitimacy." The Chief Justice's legacy will depend upon his
ability to lead the Court towards that goal. Rosen, an astute
observer of the Supreme Court, and every citizen who cares about
what is at stake will be watching.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 23, 2011

The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America
by Jeffrey Rosen

  • Publication Date: January 9, 2007
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Times Books
  • ISBN-10: 0805081828
  • ISBN-13: 9780805081824