Monday, July 23, 2007

Jan Crawford Greenburg's Supreme Conflict

After not getting much reading done the first half of the summer, I'm really in a groove now. I've already written about how great Phil Rosenthal's You're Lucky You're Funny is and how much I enjoyed John Meacham's American Gospel and this weekend I finished another fascinating book: Jan Greenburg Crawford's Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court

Supreme Conflict is an inside look into the current Supreme Court, spending numerous chapters on each of the confirmation battles over the past quarter century, from Ronald Reagan's appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy to the most recent selections of John Roberts, the disaster that was the Harriet Miers nomination, and finally Samuel Alito. For anyone interested in the Supreme Court, or wants an inside look at the confirmation process or how the Supreme Court has functioned during the past 25-years-plus, the book is a must read.

And there are some very interesting revelations in the book. Like many, I never thought to question the media hype machine's story that Clarance Thomas was nothing more than Antonin Scalia's understudy. After reading Crawford's book, though, I have an entirely new appreciation and respect for Justice Thomas. As Greenburg points out, many times during Thomas' first year on the bench, it was his strong will and unwillingness to bend to the views of his colleagues which often got Justice Scalia to change his mind about a case, not the other way around.

I have a hard time deciding which parts of the book I enjoyed more, the stories about the confirmation process (from how George H.W. Bush's Chief of Staff's strong support for David Souter allowed one of the most liberal justices on the Court to get appointed by one of our more conservative Presidents to the lessons George W. Bush learned so he did not make the same mistake with his nominees) or the stories about the individual cases and how the Supreme Court made the decisions they have.

And Crawford brings up some good points as well. As she writes, no matter what else can be said about George W. Bush's failure as a President, whether by accident or design (and with the Harriet Miers debacle, it's probably a bit of both), you can't say he did not put his stamp on the Supreme Court for decades to come.
Historians may judge Bush as less than competent on many levels, but none will be able to write that he was unable to follow through on his campaign promises when it came to the Supreme Court. In pushing through John Roberts and Samuel Alito, the Bush White House did indeed give Americans justices closely aligned with Scalia and Thomas.

[. . . ]

Although their outlook on the law and the proper role of the Court may be similar to that of Scalia and Thomas, their impact on its direction over the next three to four decades will be more substantial. The Court is now poised to recede from some of the divisive cultural debates. George W. Bush and his team of lawyers will be shaping the direction of American law and culture long after many of them are dead.

And looking back on the Court's most recent term, with decisions on free speech and affirmative action, and the obvious imprint both Alito and Roberts have had, Crawford's words could not have been more accurate.

And this is not to say the book was perfect. Although not an epic (the book weighs in at just over 300 pages, not short, but not the 700 page Theodore Roosevelt biography I am tackling next) it does get repetitive at points, as the same cases are discussed multiple times in different portions of the book. And while it is obvious Crawford spent countless hours reviewing notes, interviews, previous stories, and doing many of her own interviews and explorations, the book reads in spots as too much like a book report. Crawford weaves together so many different sources in such a fluid way, it makes it seem as if anyone who did the research could have written the same book. Which, isn't true of course, and, as I said previously, Crawford's voice comes through in places, but overall, not enough. And perhaps I wouldn't have noticed so much, but after just reading Phil Rosenthal's memoir, which had such a conversational style which was so easy to read, the academic nature of Supreme Conflict was especially evident.

Overall though, a great read, and followers of the Court should blow right through this book in no time. It certainly gives you a new perspective on the current Justices and a new view of just how politics has changed the confirmation process for the foreseeable future.

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