A People's History of the Supreme Court

by Peter Irons

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Publisher: Penguin
Copyright: 1999, 2006
Printing: 2006
ISBN: 0-14-303738-2
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 553

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I first encountered Peter Irons via his Teaching Company course, The History of the Supreme Court. I listened to that and enjoyed it, and would recommend it as an excellent overview. When I later ran across this book, I was excited: I usually prefer books to lectures on topics that can benefit from greater depth, and A People's History of the United States is one of my favorite history books. A book that talked about the Supreme Court from a similar bottom-up approach was appealing.

Unfortunately, I think the title oversells this book. It is a history of the Supreme Court, and, as with Zinn's book, it carries its bias openly (if not as forcefully or compellingly as Zinn). It is a legal history concerned with individual rights, and Irons openly expresses his opinions of the merits of certain decisions. But it's not the full-throated cry for justice and for the voice of the general population that Zinn's book was, nor did I think it entirely delivered on the introductory promise to look at the people and situations underlying the case. It does provide more background and biographical sketch of the litigants in famous cases than some other histories, but those sketches are generally brief and focused on the background and relevant facts for the case. This is, in short, a history of the Supreme Court, with some attention paid to the people involved and open comfort with an authorial viewpoint, but without the eye-opening and convention-defying freshness of Zinn's refusal to point the camera at the usual suspects.

It also largely duplicates Irons's course for the Teaching Company. That's only really a problem for those, like me, who listened to that course already and came to this book looking for additional material. If you haven't listened to the course, this is a reasonable medium in which to provide the same content, although you do miss the audio recordings of actual Supreme Court argument in some of the most famous cases. But after having listened or read both, I think I prefer the course. It felt a bit more focused; the book is not padded, but the additional material is also not horribly memorable.

That said, as a history, I found this a solid book. Irons opens with a surprisingly detailed look at the constitutional convention and the debates over the wording of the US Constitution, focusing on those sections that will become the heart of later controversy. Some of them were known to be controversial at the time and were discussed and argued at great length, such as anything related to slavery and the role of a bill of rights. But others, including many sections at the heart of modern controversies, were barely considered. Despite being a bit off-topic for the book, I found this section very interesting and am now wanting to seek out a good, full history of the convention.

Irons's history from there is primarily chronological, although he does shift the order slightly to group some major cases into themes. He doesn't quite provide the biographies of each Supreme Court justice that he discussed in the introduction, but he comes close, along with discussion of the surrounding politics of the nomination and the political climate in which they were sitting. There's a bit of an overview of the types of cases each court saw, although not as much as I would have liked. Most of the history is, as one might expect, focused on more detailed histories of the major cases.

Here, I was sometimes left satisfied and sometimes left a bit annoyed. The discussion of the Japanese internment cases is excellent, as you might expect given Irons's personal role in getting them overturned. The discussion of the segregation cases is also excellent; in general, I found Section V the strongest part of this book. Irons also does a good job throughout in showing how clearly political the court was and has always been, and the degree to which many major decisions were pre-decided by politics rather than reasoned legal judgment. Where I think he fails, however, is that much of this book has little sense of narrative arc. This is admittedly difficult in a history of a body that takes on widely varying and almost random cases, but there are some clear narratives that run through judicial thinking, and I don't think Irons does a good enough job telling those stories for the readers. For example, I remembered the evolution of interpretation of the 14th Amendment from freedom of contract to the keystone of application of the Bill of Rights to the states as a compelling and coherent story from his course, and here it felt scattered and less clear.

In general, I liked the earlier sections of this book better than the later, with Section V on the Warren court as the best and last strong section. Beyond that point in the history, it felt like Irons was running out of steam, and it was harder and harder to see an underlying structure to the book. He would describe a few cases, in a factual but somewhat dry manner, make a few comments on the merits of the decision that felt more superficial than earlier sections of the book, and then move on to another case that might be largely unrelated. Recent judicial history is fascinating, but I don't think this is the book for that. Irons is much stronger in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries; beyond that, I prefer Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine, which also has far deeper and more interesting biographies of recent justices.

This is not a bad history of the Supreme Court. If you're looking for one, I can recommend it. But if you're flexible about format, I recommend Irons's course more. I think it's less dry, better presented, and flows better, and I don't feel like you'll miss much in the transformation of this book into an 18 hour course. It's also remarkable to hear the actual voices of the lawyers and justices in some of the landmark cases of the middle of the 20th century. But if you specifically want a book, this does the job.

Do also read The Nine, though. It's a good complement to Irons's straight history, showing much more of the inner workings, political maneuverings, and day-to-day struggles of the justices.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-06-25

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21