9781594201011 / 1594201013

Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court


Publisher:Penguin Press HC, The



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About the book:

With its closed chambers and formal language, the Supreme Court tends to deflect drama away from its vastly powerful proceedings. But its mysteries hold plenty of intrigue for anyone with the access to uncover them. In Supreme Conflict, Jan Crawford Greenburg has that access, and then some. With high-placed sourcing that would make Bob Woodward proud, she tells the story of the Court's recent decades and of the often-thwarted attempts by three conservative presidents to remake the Court in their image. Among the revelations are the surprising influence of the most-maligned justice, Clarence Thomas, and the political impact of personal relations among these nine very human colleagues-for-life. Written for everyday readers rather than legal scholars, her account sidesteps theoretical subtleties for a compelling story of the personalities who breathe life into our laws. --Tom Nissley

Crawford graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, and was a legal affairs reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Supreme Court correspondent for PBS's NewsHour before becoming the legal correspondent for ABC News. We had the chance to ask her a few questions about Supreme Conflict:

Questions for Jan Crawford Greenburg How hard was it to get the access to justices and clerks that you had for this book? Does the culture of the Court promote that kind of openness about their deliberations?

Jan Crawford Greenburg: Hard! And let me tell you it took some time--they weren't flinging open the doors of their chambers for the first few years I was covering the Court. It takes awhile to build relationships and trust, and I was fortunate enough to do that during the dozen years I've been covering the Supreme Court. As for openness, I think the culture of the Court instead promotes anonymity and privacy. The justices aren't like the people across the street in Congress, or down Pennsylvania Avenue in the White House. They don't hold press conferences or solicit media coverage of their views. They speak through their opinions. I was fortunate that they also chose to speak with me for this important book about the direction of the Supreme Court and its role in our lives. Harry Blackmun's notes must be a treasure chest for Court historians. Could you describe what you found there?

Greenburg: A treasure chest is an understatement. Harry Blackmun took extraordinarily detailed notes--almost breathtaking in their scope and level of detail. (He would even write down what lawyers were wearing when they'd appear in Court to argue a case.) He recorded the justices' comments during their private conferences--when they discuss cases--and he took down their votes. And he kept all the key memos and letters that the justices would send back and forth when they were discussing a case. It was a tremendous window into the Court's inner sanctum, during some of the most pivotal years for the institution. One of the biggest revelations of your book is your characterization of Clarence Thomas as far more influential, even in his first year on the Court, than he's usually given credit for. Could you describe what his role on the Court has been?

Greenburg: Clarence Thomas has been the most maligned justice in modern history--and also the most misunderstood and mischaracterized. I found conclusive evidence that far from being Antonin Scalia's intellectual understudy, Thomas has had a substantial role in shaping the direction of the Court--from his very first week on the bench. The early storyline on Thomas was that he was just following Scalia's direction, or as one columnist at the time wrote, "Thomas Walks in Scalia's Shoes." That is patently false, as the documents and notes in the Blackmun papers unquestionably show. If any justice was changing his vote to join the other that first year, it was Scalia joining Thomas, not the other way around. But his clear and forceful views affected the Court in unexpected ways. Although he shored up conservative positions, his opinions also caused moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to back away and join the justices on the Left. Not every Supreme Court confirmation is a battle, even when the Senate and the President are from different parties. What separates the candidates who sail through from the ones who get put through the wringer?

Greenburg: The recent appointment of Samuel Alito shows a justice with a clearly conservative record can get confirmed--and even pick up some votes from Democrats. Maybe the secret is developing a reputation as a fair and nonpartisan judge on a federal appeals court. At his hearings, liberal and conservative judges who had worked with him on the appeals court testified in his behalf, as did his law clerks--some of whom were self-identified liberals. Alito was the conservative counterpart to Clinton nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She had been an outspoken advocate for liberal causes (including the ACLU), but she'd developed a reputation as a fair and thoughtful judge on the federal appeals court, garnering respect from both sides. How much do Americans know about how their federal courts work? What should they know?

Greenburg: Most Americans, understandably, think about trials and drama when the issue of the courts is raised. But the appeals courts--and the Supreme Court--remain mysterious, even though those courts have an enormous impact on American life. The judiciary is one of the three branches of government, but its decisions take on outsized importance at times. It can provide a vital check against abuse of individual rights by government--but it also can usurp the role of the people when it reaches out and takes on issues that more appropriately belong in the purview of the other branches. Even though you show how our expectations for where new members will take the Court are so often wrong, I'll ask you anyway: What do you expect in the next few years from the Roberts Court?

Greenburg: To be more conservative than the one led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist. John Roberts himself is a solid judicial conservative who believes the Court has too often taken on issues that belong in the realm of elected legislatures. He is advocating a more restrained approach, with greater consensus among the justices. In addition, Justice Alito replaced key swing-voter Sandra Day O'Connor, the Court's first female justice. O'Connor's vote often carried the day on the closely divided Court--and she typically sided with liberals on social issues like abortion, affirmative action, and religion. Alito is more conservative, and I expect to see the Court turn to the right on those and other issues.

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