Books
12:24 pm
Mon December 17, 2007

Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court

Supreme Conflict is more than a history of the findings of the court for the last fifteen or so years. Based on interviews with nine justices, over a dozen federal appeals court judges, scores of officials from several administrations, and years of research in the Library of Congress and the Reagan and Bush presidential libraries, this is a reliable behind-the-scenes account of how the court's decisions got made and, more importantly, why and how the new justices of the last decade have been chosen.

Supreme Conflict

After graduation from the U of A in journalism and some time reporting for the Chicago Tribune, Jan Crawford, now Greenburg, attended the University of Chicago law school and, rather than practicing law, pursued a successful career covering legal matters and the U. S. Supreme Court in particular. For thirteen years she has reported for newspapers and television, including ABC's World News Tonight, Good Morning America, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Few reporters have observed the high court more closely for as long as she has.

Supreme Conflict is more than a history of the findings of the court for the last fifteen or so years. Based on interviews with nine justices, over a dozen federal appeals court judges, scores of officials from several administrations, and years of research in the Library of Congress and the Reagan and Bush presidential libraries, this is a reliable behind-the-scenes account of how the court's decisions got made and, more importantly, why and how the new justices of the last decade have been chosen.

Greenburg's prose is just serviceable, however, and although she clearly intends to write a reportorial, neutral, fair and balanced account, the reader can almost feel her wince when matters do not go as the Reagans, and Bushes, wish them to.

The Supreme Court has been a major battlefield of national politics during the culture wars of the last decade or so, although probably not as central as Greenburg suggests. True, Americans vote for president partly on how they believe he?or she?will make the judicial appointments that will affect Roe v. Wade, gay rights and marriage, affirmative action, and other hot-button issues, but, really, there are other concerns as well, including the economy, the environment, and war and peace.

This volume, however, is understandably focused on the court. Evangelicals want Roe reversed. Judicial conservatives want a strict interpretation of the Constitution with no inherent right of privacy, holding that this right does not exist, even in your domestic bedroom. They wish the justices to understand the Constitution to mean, word by word, what it meant in the late eighteenth century and deny that it is "a living document," a phrase used derisively. In this age of globalization, conservatives want no attention whatsoever to be paid to the laws of other countries.

Consequently, there has been despair and gnashing of teeth, ably and sympathetically reported by Greenburg, when what appear to be true-blue conservative judges are confirmed and then, tragically, disappointingly, drift to the left. Sandra Day O'Connor drifted; Anthony Kennedy drifted; David Souter, ascetic, reclusive New Hampshire bachelor eccentric, didn't drift?they just had him pegged wrong from the start.

Why this drift? Conservatives explain it by insisting the justices cave in to the pressures of the editorial pages of the New York Times and the opinions of the faculties at the elite law schools. That latter reason especially could use some examining. Why should it be assumed that the best minds in American legal education are wrong? Conservatives say justices want to be popular. To his credit, I guess, Antonin Scalia never wanted to be popular, and, after his grisly confirmation hearings, Clarence Thomas had no hopes of being popular. These two could make their decisions based on their rigid legal principles, and they do, Thomas, surprisingly, influencing Scalia more than vice-versa.

What Greenburg never does suggest is that from the incredibly powerful vantage point of the Supreme Court, things look different and the so-called drift to the left is the responsible response.

Greenburg does a good job of explaining why the highly qualified John Roberts and Sam Alito were chosen and confirmed and, although it pains her to do it, she examines in detail the fiasco that was the Harriet Meiers nomination, a nomination which followed close upon the Katrina disaster and was so cronyistic and egregious that the congressional Republicans immediately set out to kill it and the Democrats didn't have to bother.

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