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Noteworthy Supreme Court Books

By Dennis Owens – March 6, 2012


Here are some interesting books about the U.S. Supreme Court. These are not practice books. Most were not written for lawyers.


David G. Savage
Guide to the United States Supreme Court, Fifth Edition, Two Volumes
Congressional Quarterly Press


The author is the Supreme Court reporter for the Los Angeles Times. This set of books is large format, about 1,425 pages, and attractively bound. Mr. Savage is a highly competent writer. These books have a wide range indeed, including a lively history of the Court, an examination of the relationships of the Court with Congress and the executive branch, and astute coverage of such topics as rights, freedom, criminal procedure, equality, and privacy. Further, it has a discussion of the pressures on the Court and the media’s relationship with the Court. It addresses how the Court operates, who works there, and its building, and contains brief biographies of all the justices. There are 14 appendices including a list of all of the laws held unconstitutional by the Court and some famous quotes from Court opinions.


These books bring to mind Ed McMahon telling Johnny Carson that this thing “in my hand contains everything you would ever want to know about” some subject. And, in this case, it seems to do just that!


Philip Weinberg, Editor-in-Chief
The Supreme Court
Macmillian


This book is drawn from the four-volume Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. It is organized in the traditional manner of encyclopedias: alphabetically arranged essays about cases, concepts, controversies, personalities, and events. Many of these entries include short bibliographies on the topic—a nice feature. The writing style varies, but it tends to be surprisingly lively, considering the subject matter. Each entry is signed, and many of the names are familiar (Leonard Levy, Kenneth Karst, Kenneth Ripple, Walter F. Murphy). The publisher recruited lively writers. This book is an excellent resource—comprehensive, lucid, intelligent, and brisk.


Melvin I. Urofsky, Editor
Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court: The Lives and Legal Philosophies of the Justices
Congressional Quarterly Press


The quality of this book was determined by the choice of the contributing authors. The editor recruited not only law professors, but also history professors, reporters, judges, political scientists, and, believe it or not, a practicing attorney. A number of these authors have published a full-length biography of the justices (e.g., F. Edward White on Holmes, Linda Przybyszewski on Harlan the Elder). The assignment of these short biographies to these particular writers was judicious. The editor then had the wisdom to devote greater space to the more significant justices.


These superior writers produced superb biographical sketches. Many of these life stories and jurisprudence profiles are very well written and make for rewarding reading. They are remarkably fair.


Each entry contains extensive descriptions of important opinions (and books) written by each justice and bibliographic information. This book is an excellent value. We would prefer it as a source of objective, insightful, concise, and lucid portraits of the justices, their lives, their views, and their legacies.


The first edition (1994) was entitled The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary (Taylor & Francis).


Kermit L. Hall and James W. Ely Jr., Editors
The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions, Second Edition
Oxford University Press


Ten years have passed since the first edition of this book was published. Mr. Hall has passed away, but Professor Ely, who teaches law at Vanderbilt, has ably taken the helm. This second edition has an additional 50 case summaries, for a new total of about 400. Over 160 individuals, mostly law professors, contributed paragraphs. We must admit some distress with this book. We spotted an error in the first edition in an entry by Kermit Hall. We wrote to him to bring it to his attention. The same entry was the first thing we looked at when we received the second edition. To our surprise, the entry was unchanged. (In the discussion of Adarand Construction v. Prena, Hall discusses the 1980 decision, Fullilove v. Klutzuick, but states it was decided in 1989. He then states the Court decided Richmond v. J.A. Crosen Co. (1989) “in the same year.” There were numerous new faces on the Court in those intervening years, so the dates of those cases are important.)


In a few entries, we felt that the discussion ignored dissenting opinions that were later to become the law. In some entries, the background information was inadequate. Some contributors discuss shifts in the Court’s internal politics; others ignore them when they are significant in understanding the case. The entries are introductions to the decisions. Some are excellent; some not so.


We have used our copy several times, and we were glad that we had it. But, a few times, the information was oddly inadequate. Overall, this is a good book.


Paul Finkelman and Melvin I. Urofsky
Landmark Decisions of the United States Supreme Court, Second Edition
Congressional Quarterly Press


This is an imposing book, large format, nicely bound, heavy. It is arranged differently: The case summaries are presented chronologically with an alphabetical listing at the beginning of each decade and a complete alphabetical listing in the appendix. Nearly 1,000 cases are described and discussed. There are other useful features. For instance, before the report on Marbury v. Madison, there is quick historical note: “What Happened to the 1803 Term? The Judiciary of Acts of 1801 and 1802.” Of course, the claim of Mr. Marbury arose from the 1801 law.


Each case report includes the complete voting lineup and opinions-writing lineup, too. The reports of many important cases include bibliographies. We have found these references to recent, relevant books and law-review articles to be very helpful.


The case reports are lucid, succinct, and comprehensive. We were much impressed with how informative and well-written they are. They set up the legal framework for the controversy, recite the pertinent facts, and lay out the opinion or opinions. These reports are consistently accurate and reliable. This book is a good value, even at $240.00.


Robert G. McCloskey
The American Supreme Court, Fourth Edition
Revised by Sandford Levinson
University of Chicago Press


This book was first published in 1960. Robert McCloskey taught government at Harvard. Sanford Levinson, who now teaches law at Texas, was his student those many years ago. This book has gone through four editions and has never been out of print in 50 years. It truly is a classic. It has been in use in universities for decades. The title page indicates that the editions (subsequent to the first) were “revised.” But, they were not. Rather, Levinson added chapters 8 and 9, an epilogue, and a coda. (We fondly remember reading the first edition in college; we still have our copy of it.)


The heart of the book (the unchanged first seven chapters) is an elegantly nuanced introduction to the work of the Supreme Court, by way of a historical narrative. This story is good reading. McCloskey was even-handed, insightful, and perceptive.


Levinson is most assuredly brilliant and superbly educated. But, in our humble opinion, his additions sometimes miss the mark, particularly in terms of scholarly objectivity. We will put it this way: Levinson has definitely not “gotten over” Bush v. Gore. But, we will give him credit for not announcing that he knows how McCloskey would have reacted to the decision.


Generally, the added portions are a fine demonstration of McCloskey’s analytical approach applied to post-1960 decisions. Overall, this is done in a skilled and convincing manner.


This is a very fine book for laymen, but lawyers who have grown stale on constitutional law will also find it to be an enjoyable refresher. Perhaps, an attorney would be pleased with new insights offered in well-crafted language.


Lawrence Baum
The Supreme Court, Tenth Editon
Congressional Quarterly Press


Lawrence Baum teaches government at Ohio State. His book is a fine introduction to the Court as an institution. It contains fresh notions about its justices, its history, and its work. We learned something new or were led to think about some aspect of the Court and its impact in nearly every chapter. This is surprising because this book is aimed at students. The author views the Court primarily as a political institution. Yet, his writing reflects no bias or agenda. This is a good introductory book.


Christopher Tomlins, editor
The United States Supreme Court: The Pursuit of Justice
Houghton Mifflin


This book was published in collaboration with the American Bar Foundation. Mr. Tomlins is a research fellow with the foundation. There are 16 chapters that cover the Court’s history. These were written by stellar scholars. As one would expect, the chapters do vary markedly in writing style, normative perspective, and focus. The theme is the life of the law, but the background music throughout is politics. It is a tribute to the editor that these historical chapters present a seamless narrative.


Four other chapters discuss the culture of the early Court, Supreme Court advocacy over the years (a superb offering by David C. Frederick), the Court’s image, and the Court and election returns.


The history chapters identify the justices, map the political landscape, and summarize the important constitutional decisions. In addition, 78 pages are devoted to brief biographical sketches of all of the justices.


Although much of this material may be quite familiar to many appellate advocates, it is presented here with verve. This is a book aimed at historically literate readers, but it will be of value to scholars, specialists, and appellate attorneys, too.


Keywords: litigation, appellate practice, David Savage, Philip Weinberg, Melvin Urofsky, Kermit Hall, James Ely, Paul Finkelman, Robert McCloskey, Lawrence Baum, Christopher Tomlins


Dennis Owens practices appellate law in Kansas City, Missouri.


 
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