Monday, October 27, 2008

The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin

Though we all learned in a high school government class the actual rules and regulations of Supreme Court practice, what Jeffrey Toobin reveals in his masterful The Nine is that the Court is first a group of individuals, characters if you will, and they are the ones who really run everything. There’s an element of politicking that the justices downplay, but those able to wage a political war effectively often have great influence over their peers, and thus over America itself.

Beginning roughly at the time of O’Connor’s nomination to the court in 1981 by Ronald Reagan, To
obin leads the reader through an exciting account of the major events up to the 2006-7 Supreme Court term. In prose that is eminently readable and often exciting, he is able to throw off the shroud of inner court workings to help the reader see how each justice comes to their decisions and tries to influence others.

Each justice is given several pages dedicated to backstory so we can get a better conception of who they are as people. After reading about his autobiography last year, I feel that Clarence Thomas is one of the most interesting people on the bench. I might not agree with pretty much any of his views, save that both he and I think NASCAR is pretty cool. But seeing the anger that he has carried his whole life, especially after his difficult confirmation, and I can’t help but feel sorry for him. Toobin always drops these mini-biographies into a portion of the greater workings of the court so as to contextualize the proceedings by offering the personal knowledge.

Though it isn’t Toobin’s purpose to explain exactly how the court functions, one is able to learn a lot more about the inner workings of the justices than one would learn from a stale civics book. His style adds a certain amount of romance to the Court, bringing the justices to life as well rounded people rather than old guys in black robes. From my perspective, I felt this more a book of journalism than anything else; no agenda was apparent and only rarely would a word here or there cue one in as to Toobin’s own personal views.

I believe I came out with a greater appreciation of Stephen Breyer than I have had before, due to his personality and ability to influence others. Breyer has been criticized for being a moderate, but to me he comes across as quite practical, always thinking about how cases will affect the real world. This kind of thinking is evidenced in his decision to remove the Ten Commandments from courtrooms yet let the old statue of the Commandments at the Capitol here in Austin remain. To me, those are sensible decisions that should appease the majority of the people.

One also sees new Chief Justice John Roberts philosophy of narrow decisions is seemingly a good one. Decide cases in the narrowest way possible in order to reduce the effect on other laws. Yet that very practice is now allowing he and the conservative majority to write around previously established laws without overturning them. Stare decisis, or precedent, is slowly but steadily vanishing from influence.

The Nine was named one of the ten best books of 2007 by the New York Times, and though I didn’t read every book published last year, I’d have to agree. I don’t have cable so I am unsure as to what kind of on-air commentator Toobin is, but if his voice there even remotely resembles the book then he is one of the better people in cable news.

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