Book Review: The Nine

As part of my effort to be a better writer, I’m writing a book review of each book I read in 2008. I just finished this one in late December 2007, but I’m still counting it as first of 2008.

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, by Jeffrey Toobin, examines the history and politics of the Supreme Court from the age of Reagan to the present day, concluding with the ominous decisions in the 2006 term. Toobin’s point of view challenges the age-old wisdom that joining the court tends to change the men and women who serve there, flip-flopping liberals to conservatives and conservatives to liberals. Instead, he argues that the nature and structure of the court reflects the make-up of Congress and the Presidency at the time of the nomination. In the 1980s and early 1990s, a Supreme Court justice who wished to overturn Roe v. Wade couldn’t pass the Senate; by the early 2000s and the presidency of George W. Bush (43), even a Senator who supported Roe v. Wade was being subjected to a litmus test to see whether he could remain in charge of the Senate Judiciary Committee. No way could a nominee pass the process who didn’t wish to overturn the initial abortion case.

Toobin explains in quick sketches the personality and point of view of each of the Justices, from the firey and bombastic Antonin Scalia, whose Originalist arguments rarely swayed his colleagues, to Sandra Day O’Connor, whose politicking in Arizona helped make her the Court’s swing vote for nearly twenty years. Rhenquist’s weakness and deteriorating health explain some of her power; Ginsburg’s outer meekness conceals granite within. Clarence Thomas largely remains a cipher in the book, in part because of his reluctance to engage in the public business of the court. He is the only Justice to have sat through an entire term — 104 cases — without once asking a single question.

Toobin’s prose is gripping. His chapters end on cliffhangers, even though a quick visit to Wikipedia or your own memory can answer the questions soon enough. It reads well, and he divides the story into enough chapters that it’s possible to read cleanly, ending each chapter and setting it aside for a time. Even so, I found myself staying up late in the last days of December, trying to finish.

His conclusions are dismaying. The Court portrays itself as above the fray of politics, but its intervention in Bush vs. Gore is portrayed in the most damning light — a court of conservatives eager to put their man in the White House, only to discover that at least two of the Justices found the man appalling in action as President. Meanwhile, the Court’s march to the right, under Roberts and Alito, reveals a politically-minded gang of five eager to subvert the liberal gains of the last twenty-five years. Roberts, Alito and Scalia have all indicated a willingness to revisit Miranda warnings by police, and Roe vs. Wade and Casey vs. Planned Parenthood are clearly destined for the chopping block. The book never descends into Democratic politicking, but it presents a view of a Court increasingly out-of-step with mainstream America and not caring. It fires me up for the idea of having a Democratic president for another eight years; I hope we get one.

Short version: 3.5 stars out of 5. I’m not likely to read it again, or buy it (borrowed book), but for those who love politics and want background on our third branch of government, I’d recommend it highly.

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