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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Department of Book Reports 35: The Nine

Jeffrey Toobin’s fascinating The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court (Doubleday $27.95) has everything any political junkie could want. With wit, lucidity and clarity, Jeffrey Toobin relates the history of recent Court history, recounts the major cases, and give incisive profiles of the men and women who serve on the court.
The New York Times Sunday review of the book (and I try not to read too many reviews before writing my own report, so as not to influence my own view) emphasizes a favorite Beltway game of guessing who amongst the Justices talked to Toobin. While that may be fun, I have to say, I don’t really care. Even if some of the justices didn’t talk to Toobin, his sources are close enough. I got a very good sense of who these people are, how they think, and what their temperaments are like. From the privately affable Clarence Thomas, to the reclusive David Souter (who learned only in 2003 that there was a Pop group called The Supremes), to the fairly pompous Anthony Kennedy, to the over-the-top Antonin Scalia, the justices are vividly sketched. Front and center among them is Sandra Day O’Connor who, more often than not, was the swing vote on the court. She tried over those years to steer a middle course and prided herself on knowing the pulse of the country. Sometimes she succeeded, other times, not. She played a central role and cast the deciding vote in Bush v. Gore, a decision we get the feeling she truly regretted as her disenchantment with the President and her “beloved” Republican Party grew.
Toobin covers the intellectual history as well, from the liberal Warren court, through the Burger and Rehnquist courts, to the recent Roberts Nine. The rise to prominence of the Federalist Society, a conservative movement begun in the early ‘80’s and championed by Robert Bork and Scalia, has dominated the thinking of many Bush nominees and appointments. The movement itself wanted to undermine the constitutional basis of a strong government; if it isn’t explicit in the Constitution, then it isn’t constitutional. Apparently it is a document that is race-blind and without gender bias. All constitutional questions should be judged by what the founding Fathers intended. So we have a lot of justices now serving who can also read minds. Especially the minds of men dead for two hundred years.
Iraq will be a devastating legacy for the administration. Alas, so will the Supreme Court appointments and the other justices on the lower courts that Bush has installed. It will take years, perhaps decades, to undo what has been thrust upon us. Paraphrasing Toobin, the Conservative agenda of overturning Roe, expanding executive power, speeding up executions, welcoming religion into the political arena and ‘returning the Constitution from its exile since the New Deal’ is within reach. Only Anthony Kennedy could stand in the way and for all his sophistication, he isn’t Sandra Day O’Connor. What a frickin’ mess.

The Nine is available at Jackson Street Books and Fine Independent Bookstores everywhere.

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