Saturday, July 12, 2014

To the Bottom of the Nine

Blog regulars will know that I've been following the various marriage equality cases bubbling up through the U.S. legal system with great interest. Doing so has scratched a long forgotten itch from my middle school days, a brief blip in time where I was pretty sure I wanted to be a lawyer. (Well, maybe not that, but I sure thought "mock trial" was a hell of a lot of fun.) It's led me to digging a fair amount into other cases that appear before the Supreme Court, and reading some about the Court's history.

That brought me to a nonfiction book by Jeffrey Toobin, The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. It covers how dedicated polticians, beginning in the early 1980s, sought to move the Court in a conservative direction, toward an "originalist" judicial philosophy: one that argues an interpretation of the Constitution limited to how it's believed the writers intended it in their time.

As the above description probably makes clear already, this is a partisan book. Originally published in advance of the 2008 election, the book was trying to make the point that when it comes to the Supreme Court, elections matter a lot. That said, this may be a partisan book that readers on either side of the political spectrum can enjoy: for the left, it's an important wake-up call; for the right, it's a detailed chronicle of, basically, how you won.

The book starts at the point William Rehnquist was elevated to Chief Justice. The Reagan and Bush presidencies, spanning 12 years, could have easily led to a far right wing Court, but the unanticipated centrism of a number of appointed justices kept things in roughly the same ideological place. But the death of Rehnquist and retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor (under George W. Bush) led to the appointment of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, moving the court farther to the right than it has been nearly a century.

Along the way, the book offers a number of interesting anecdotes about day-to-day business within the Supreme Court, relationships between justices, and the highlights of a few landmark cases from the Rehnquist years. But it ultimately comes back to central point: in 2008, the Court was right on the cusp of going irrevocably to the far right, for decades to come. The election of Barack Obama, and his appointment of Sonia Sotamayor and Elena Kagan, has kept the most extreme version of that scenario from coming to pass. And yet in a number of rulings over the past few years, from Citizens United to Hobby Lobby, we've seen that the Court is already farther right than even this book seemed to realize.

As such, this book retains its relevance today, with the 2016 presidential election around the corner. Ideologically, the Supreme Court is perched in exactly the same position: if you're a conservative, you're one presidential win away from what very likely will be a lifetime lock on Court; if you're a liberal, you need a win to at least hang on to the status quo.

The Nine does get a little slow in a few places, and surely a bit speculative in others. Nevertheless, I think it's a very accessible look at a subject that many people probably think is ordinarily too dry. I give it a B. If you're one of those people who thinks that presidential elections always come down to choosing between the lesser of two evils, you're not considering the very important issue of the Supreme Court, and you really need to read this book.

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