Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Nine (Book Review)

Book review from The Movie Snob

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, by Jeffrey Toobin (Doubleday 2007). This is a behind-the-scenes look at the high court from roughly 1991-2007, when Sandra Day O’Connor’s swing vote often controlled the outcome of high-profile, hotly contested cases. I have no idea who Jeffrey Toobin is; the dust jacket says virtually nothing about him, and just says he is a legal writer for New Yorker magazine. But he does not conceal his personal opinions about the justices; the liberals are the heroes (especially Stephen Breyer) and the conservatives are the villains. For an admirer of Justice Scalia like me, that is hard to take. Some of his shots at the conservative bloc seem particularly petty, like his observations that Clarence Thomas presided over Rush Limbaugh’s third marriage and "(The couple soon divorced.)." He seems to like O’Connor, even while acknowledging that her decisions often seemed to be grounded in her sense of public opinion rather than any deep judicial philosophy. He spends many pages ranting against the decision in Bush v. Gore and speculates that O’Connor joined the conservative bloc because she "thought that the American people were fed up with the whole controversy and, like her, wanted it over." He seems to want to disagree with her in the next sentence, but he seems to confirm that a lot of people did actually feel that way: "In fact, polls showed only a slight majority in favor of ending all recounts and considerable support for a complete recount." Sorry, Jeff, but I think a majority, however slight, is pretty "considerable support," especially compared to the alternative. He also comments on O’Connor’s remarkable suggestion in one of the University of Michigan affirmative-action cases that in 25 years affirmative action might "no longer be necessary." He concedes that even non-conservatives might "have qualms" about such judicial arrogance, but he ultimately gives even this line the stamp of approval: "O’Connor understood that twenty-five more years of racial preferences seemed the right amount of time." How Toobin can vouch for the accuracy of O’Connor’s understanding is, not surprisingly, left unexplained.

Yet, despite all these aggravating aspects and more (e.g., Toobin’s lurches between chambers gossip and legal analysis suggest that he wasn’t entirely sure what kind of book he was writing, and he calls wild maverick Judge Richard Posner a "great conservative judge"), I thought it was an interesting book and managed to finish it without ever hurling it across the room in disgust. If you are interested in the Supreme Court (and some basic familiarity with the cases he discusses will help too), you will probably enjoy this book—just less so if you’re a Scalia fan. Big on the plus side is Toobin’s disdain for the self-aggrandizing, platitudinous Anthony Kennedy, who is likely to be even more insufferable as long as he is the new swing vote on the Court. This vacuous pseudo-philosopher king’s pretensions have been punctured in print before, but it cannot be done often enough for my liking.


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