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The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America (Hardcover)

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    Jeffrey (Author); Rosen(Author)

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A leading Supreme Court expert recounts the personal and philosophical rivalries that forged our nation's highest court and continue to shape our daily livesThe Supreme Court is the most mysterious branch of government, and yet the Court is at root a human institution, made up of very bright people with very strong egos, for whom political and judicial conflicts often become personal.In this compelling work of character-driven history, Jeffrey Rosen recounts the history of the Court through the personal and philosophical rivalries on the bench that transformed the law-and by extension, our lives. The story begins with the great Chief Justice John Marshall and President Thomas Jefferson, cousins from the Virginia elite whose differing visions of America set the tone for the Court's first hundred years. The tale continues after the Civil War with Justices John Marshall Harlan and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who clashed over the limits of majority rule. Rosen then examines the Warren Court era through the lens of the liberal icons Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, for whom personality loomed larger than ideology. He concludes with a pairing from our own era, the conservatives William H. Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, only one of whom was able to build majorities in support of his views.Through these four rivalries, Rosen brings to life the perennial conflict that has animated the Court-between those justices guided by strong ideology and those who forge coalitions and adjust to new realities. He illuminates the relationship between judicial temperament and judicial success or failure. The stakes are nothing less than the future of American jurisprudence.

A leading Supreme Court expert recounts the personal and philosophical rivalries that forged our nation’s highest court and continue to shape our daily livesThe Supreme Court is the most mysterious branch of government, and yet the Court is at root a human institution, made up of very bright people with very strong egos, for whom political and judicial conflicts often become personal.In this compelling work of character-driven history, Jeffrey Rosen recounts the history of the Court through the personal and philosophical rivalries on the bench that transformed the law—and by extension, our lives. The story begins with the great Chief Justice John Marshall and President Thomas Jefferson, cousins from the Virginia elite whose differing visions of America set the tone for the Court’s first hundred years. The tale continues after the Civil War with Justices John Marshall Harlan and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who clashed over the limits of majority rule. Rosen then examines the Warren Court era through the lens of the liberal icons Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, for whom personality loomed larger than ideology. He concludes with a pairing from our own era, the conservatives William H. Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, only one of whom was able to build majorities in support of his views.Through these four rivalries, Rosen brings to life the perennial conflict that has animated the Court—between those justices guided by strong ideology and those who forge coalitions and adjust to new realities. He illuminates the relationship between judicial temperament and judicial success or failure. The stakes are nothing less than the future of American jurisprudence.

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Review Text

  • By Frederick S. Goethel on May 15, 2015

    The theory laid out by the author is that the justices on the court who have the most ability to build consensus are the most successful and the ones most likely to have their cases stand the test of time. He utilizes 3 sets of justices and a justice and a president to attempt to make his argument.While the book is interesting, and offers interesting insights into the minds of the people involved as well as a look at their judicial philosophies, I think the book suffers from one major flaw. While making the case using these justices, he ignores numerous other justices. It is my suspicion, although I cannot verify it, that if he used different pairs of justices, his conclusions might have been a bit different. Put another way, it is very possible that the author cherry picked these justices to make his point.To be a valid hypothesis, the author would have to look at other pairs of justices and see if his idea holds water. Until that happens, this is just another book that examines the quirks of the various justices involved.

  • By Anonymous on September 25, 2013

    The larger point of this book is interesting and convincing. That collegiality and consensus-building may be more important traits than sheer intellect in determining long-term influence is a thesis that has legs.This book falters in a few ways though. First, Rosen seems to have an axe to grind with certain justices. His characterizations of Holmes, for example, were a bit over the top. Second. In some areas he seemed to cherry pick the evidence. In other areas, the conclusions were all over the place. On Holmes, Rosen had virtually nothing positive to say nor did he attempt to introduce any balance. On Black though, his arguments were all over the map. Was Black 's style really that effective towards the end? Also, is Scalia really that ineffective? Is he really that much of an ideologue considering how often he departs from conservatives on criminal justice issues and a loner considering Ginsburg is one of his closest friends? Third, I think he missed the mark by not adding a chapter on Burger versus Brennan. Finally, the writing could have been better. Too many gratuitous "big" words. The writing was just gaudy with very little reward in elegance.I should note the interview with Justice Roberts was illuminating. I think that might have been one of the stronger chapters in the book. Also, Rosen's assessment of Harlan (mostly the first one, but to a lesser extent, the second) and Rehnquist were interesting.There are some gems, but overall, this is a mediocre book.

  • By Ronald H. Clark on February 9, 2007

    This is the "companion" volume to the recent PBS series on the Court, but it is very different from that program. The author, Jeffrey Rosen, is a Professor of Law at George Washington University here in Washington, although he also writes for "The New Republic" and other prominent magazines such as "The Atlantic." Rather than exclusively focusing on case development, as the PBS series pretty much does, Rosen rather concentrates on developing a focus on the "temperament" of various Justices (and President Jefferson) and how their temperamental outlooks and characteristics affected the activities of the Court. The book is built around four chapters, each of which juxtaposes two individuals, who Rosen argues had substantially different temperaments: Marshall and Jefferson; Harlan I and Holmes; Black and Douglas; and Rehnquist and Scalia.Rosen's focus on temperament is both helpful and, on occasion, a problem. It is helpful because it reminds us of a fact too often overlooked when reading Supreme Court history: for all their lofty status, the Court is still a small group of strong-minded individuals with healthy egos who have contrasting goals and persuasive techniques, but remain fundamentally just humans with all their frailties. So, they can lose their tempers, get alienated, lash out, suffer emotional hurt, and so forth just like the rest of us. Just as in his previous book, "The Most Democratic Branch" (also reviewed on Amazon), Rosen is extremely skillful in explaining legal concepts and Court holdings in such a way as to make them easily understood by the general reader. The problem with his approach is that he must juxtapose individuals to make it work, and I found myself disagreeing to a certain extent with his portrayals of certain folks (Holmes, especially, Jefferson somewhat less so, and William O. Douglas a bit), which seemed strained in order to give some zip to his discussion. Conversely, I found him too sanguine in evaluating others, such as Rehnquist and even Black to a certain extent. But these are issues that can be argued incessantly.One of the most valuable sections of the book is the conclusion, which is largely devoted to a fascinating interview of Chief Justice Roberts after his first year heading the Court. At 258 pages, including notes, the text moves alone nicely, and only on occasion does Rosen get too immersed in detailed legal analysis as to cause difficulties for the general reader. I found the Rehnquist-Scalia and the Black-Douglas chapters to be the best--but this is not to slam the other two chapters. There are some great illustrations and helpful notes, but no bibliography. A good, solid treatment for the general reader.

  • By Guest on October 24, 2017

    Great book!

  • By Otts Laupus on October 2, 2016

    Rosen is an excellent writer and knows his subject. I teach major Supreme Court decisions and have incorporated much of Rosen's content in my teachings and discussions.

  • By Johnny Aman on August 18, 2015

    Good look at the contrasts of personalities of the past Supreme Court justices. Anyone interested in SCOTUS would be pleased in the book.

  • By C. Turner on June 5, 2015

    Very interesting. Definitely worth it.


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