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The Supreme Court:
A new edition of the Chief Justice's classic history

by William H. Rehnquist

ISBN 0375409432 / 9780375409431 / 0-375-40943-2
Publisher Knopf
Language English
Edition Hardcover
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Book summary

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist sets a simple goal for himself: "This book is designed to convey to the interested, informed layman, as well as lawyers who do not specialize in constitutional law, a better understanding of the role of the Supreme Court in American government." He succeeds fabulously. The Supreme Court, an updated version of a book originally published in 1987, is a succinct and readable account of the Court's past and present. Rehnquist avoids getting bogged down in the minutia of particular cases, even as he deftly covers the details of several extremely important ones, such as Marbury v. Madison and Dred Scott v. Sandford.

The most interesting parts of the book explain how the current Court goes about its business. In these fascinating chapters, Rehnquist consistently includes nifty touches, such as how his law clerks decide who gets to work on which cases and the strict seating protocol that is followed when the nine justices--and nobody else--sit in conference to discuss their votes. If there's a knock on the door, it's the most junior justice who must answer. They don't really discuss cases at all during these meetings, but rather state their views. "I do not believe that conference discussion changes many votes," writes the Chief Justice. Oral arguments, on the other hand, are different: "In a significant minority of the cases in which I have heard oral argument, I have left the bench feeling differently about a case than I did when I came to the bench."

Rehnquist briefly lays out his own theory of jurisprudence in a short concluding chapter: "Go beyond the language of the Constitution, and the meaning that may be fairly ascribed to the language, and into the consciences of individual judges, is to embark on a journey that is treacherous indeed." Yet The Supreme Court largely skips comment on existing controversies, such as abortion rights, race-based policies, or the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. The book is exactly what Rehnquist promises: An accessible and enlightening introduction to a vital institution. --John J. Miller [via]