The Supreme Court: A new edition of the Chief Justice's classic history

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9780375409431: The Supreme Court: A new edition of the Chief Justice's classic history
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Fifteen years after he became the first sitting Chief Justice to write a book about the United States Supreme Court, William H. Rehnquist has added new chapters and substantially revised his classic work.

The Supreme Court begins with the personal story of William Rehnquist's introduction to the Court as a law clerk to Justice Robert Jackson in 1952. From there it describes the Court's early evolution and function in our small, young democracy. Finally, it explains how the Court operates today.

Using biographical sketches of successive chief justices and associate justices and describing landmark cases, Rehnquist shows us how, as our country has grown and our politics have changed, the Court has moved in tandem with the executive and legislative branches to become the diverse and complex body we see in the present. The dramatic case of Marbury v. Madison, in which the Court first established its authority to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional, and the ill-starred Dred Scott decision, which held that Congress might not exclude slavery from a territory–a decision that touched a raw nerve in the national consciousness–are two of the disputes described in detail.

In his intriguing analysis of the growth of our railroad system–which quickly spanned the nation, causing small towns to mortgage their futures for the right to a rail line–Rehnquist shows how first states and cities, and then the national government, sought to regulate this new in-dustry, and how the constitutional questions raised by those regulations were resolved by the Supreme Court. He also treats in detail the relationship between the executive and judicial branches–and the sort of friction between them that culminated in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Court-packing plan. Finally, the Chief Justice explains how the Supreme Court must necessarily limit itself to deciding cases that have a general public importance be-yond the concerns of the individual litigants.

The Supreme Court takes us into the Court's conference room and the justices' chambers, providing an instructive view of the operation of the Court on a day-to-day basis. We see the role played by the law clerks, and how the 4,000-odd petitions for certiorari each year are sifted in order to produce the approximately 100 cases the Court hears and decides on their merits. With grace and wit, Rehnquist describes both the least and the most effective methods of oral argument, what happens at the conferences of the justices, how decisions are reached, and how the majority and minority opinions are assigned and circulated.

This is a unique and valuable book, lucid, informative, and a delight to read. It stands as an important work on the operation and history of our highest Court.

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Review:

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist sets a simple goal for himself: "This book is designed to convey to the interested, informed layman, as well as lawyers who do not specialize in constitutional law, a better understanding of the role of the Supreme Court in American government." He succeeds fabulously. The Supreme Court, an updated version of a book originally published in 1987, is a succinct and readable account of the Court's past and present. Rehnquist avoids getting bogged down in the minutia of particular cases, even as he deftly covers the details of several extremely important ones, such as Marbury v. Madison and Dred Scott v. Sandford.

The most interesting parts of the book explain how the current Court goes about its business. In these fascinating chapters, Rehnquist consistently includes nifty touches, such as how his law clerks decide who gets to work on which cases and the strict seating protocol that is followed when the nine justices--and nobody else--sit in conference to discuss their votes. If there's a knock on the door, it's the most junior justice who must answer. They don't really discuss cases at all during these meetings, but rather state their views. "I do not believe that conference discussion changes many votes," writes the Chief Justice. Oral arguments, on the other hand, are different: "In a significant minority of the cases in which I have heard oral argument, I have left the bench feeling differently about a case than I did when I came to the bench."

Rehnquist briefly lays out his own theory of jurisprudence in a short concluding chapter: "Go beyond the language of the Constitution, and the meaning that may be fairly ascribed to the language, and into the consciences of individual judges, is to embark on a journey that is treacherous indeed." Yet The Supreme Court largely skips comment on existing controversies, such as abortion rights, race-based policies, or the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. The book is exactly what Rehnquist promises: An accessible and enlightening introduction to a vital institution. --John J. Miller

From the Back Cover:

"Rehnquist is a clear and engaging historian. . . . The Supreme Court hits the high points."–The Washington Post

“This book, written for laymen in a clear and decidedly nontechnical manner, is of interest to anyone who cares about the Supreme Court.”–The American Statesman (Austin)

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9780375708619: The Supreme Court

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