Friday, July 1, 2011
Scorpions: The Battles & Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices
Thanks to the marvelous Cheryl over at CMash Loves to Read, I won this very interesting historical book: Scorpions: The Battles & Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices by Noah Feldman. In a nutshell, this book tells the story of four great justices: their relationship with Roosevelt, with each other, and with the turbulent world of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. It also serves as a history of the modern Constitution itself, exploring the constitutional battles of the Roosevelt era (1940s and 1950s) and their contemporary relevance. A great deal of the interest in this book is in Feldman's thesis that each of the four justices developed their own unique constitutional theory and that this fueled their battles, but also spurred them to greatness. The first section of the book gives the histories of Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, Robert Jackson, and William O. Douglas. It follows them from their home towns, through their law training, finally sees them to the bench of the Supreme Court. Frankfurter was Jewish and began as America's leading liberal, but with the changing tide in politics he ended his career with the legacy as its most famous judicial conservative. Black started out as a Klansman--primarily to gain the votes of his home state that would give him a place in Congress--and wound up as an absolutist advocate of free speech and civil rights. Jackson was a back-country lawyer who started his career trying cases about cows and became the lead prosecutor in one of the most important international trials ever. Douglas was a self-made man, a Westerner and teller of tall tales who narrowly missed the presidency but led the way to expand individual freedoms beyond what had ever been done before.
This is a densely packed book full of information. Information about the inner workings of the Supreme Court. A peek into the power struggles between the branches of government. A glance at what a soap opera political life really can be. I learned a lot about the history of some of the most famous court cases--from the internment of Japanese Americans to Brown vs. the Board of Education to the constitutionality of forcing school children to salute the flag. There is more detail and information than I could possibly gloss for you here in a review. I also learned a lot about the maneuvering that takes place to try and win swing votes. And how just a little change in language can allow the Court to appear to overturn past Supreme Court decisions without really saying, "Those guys before. They were wrong. NOW we got it right." I sort of thought that once the Supreme Court ruled on it, there it was. Final say. Can't change that. Well, actually they can--as long as they figure out the right way to say it.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in history--particularly in the years just prior to WWII through the early 70s when the last of the four passed away. But be prepared to invest some time. As I said, it's a densely packed book and to get the full benefit of all that Feldman has to offer it will eat a chunk out of your reading time. Three and a half stars.