Monday, November 02, 2009

Book Review - The Brethren

Despite the lack of trust American have in many institutions, they still trust the Supreme Court. There's an air of mystery, dignity and formality to the SC. It might also be those black robes that give the Justices a leg up on the dimwits we call Congressmen. As one of the 3 branches of the American government, it is widely known of but not as much is known about the inner workings. We know presidents nominate them, and sometimes the Senate shoots nominees down, but prior to Bork's failed nomination (and the hyperpoliticization of Bush's potential nominees) usually the Senate rubber stamped the prez's nominees. Think about the SC's decision in 2000 for our POTUS election. We knew it was in their hands, but did we really know everything there was to know about the men and women handling that decision? If you want to read a book that stands as a view behind the curtain, read The Brethren.

The Brethren is by Bob Woodward and covers the SC between 69-75. Huge decisions like school busing, abortion, Watergate, and obscenity (porn) were handled in that period. The personalities come out, and Thurgood Marshall stops being that obese, black justice with the serious look to a thoughtful, intelligent and funny man. Future Chief Justice Rehnquist comes across as very intelligent and likeable. Despite being much more conservative than Mr. Woodward, he is so qualified for the court and so polished, especially compared to Burger and Blackmun, that Woodward doesn't demonize him. Woodward makes a great and illuminating remark that Rehnquist was a believer in giving the states more power in our unqieu federal system, but many major decisions had been settled in the previous century. It was like Rehnquist could not fight the battles he wanted to, and settled for the modern SC. Brennan is a brilliant and sharp liberal mind. He also has a tough edge about him. For all the liberals who dislike current Justice Scalia, reading Brennan made me view him as a liberal Scalia and the libs just have to admit that the Saclia-Brennan type is a type you love to have on your side and love to hate on the other.

Even if it was not academic, I loved reading how the personality clashes came into play. It made them human. I loved the parts where clerks would watch porno and scream out "I know it when I see it" in reference to a remark by Justice Stewart in a previous obscenity trial. How weird would the Internet be if the obscenity trials had gone the other way? Would we actually accomplish things on the Net? Reading tidbits how the Justices might not respect one another breathed an air of "our office is just like your office" into the SC. There is a human element that comes through even with their decisions. Blackmun's attention to detail on the abortion opinion, and how he kept trying to figure out when life was sustainable on its own, was very engaging. It is a slippery slope that some justices wanted to avoid, showing a bit of Nostradamus with the future of medical technology.

The book is split into years. If you know your judicial history, you can quickly go to a year that has a decision you want to read about. If I were a high school-college history, government, etc. teacher, I would probably assign the section that pertains to a decision as part of reading about that event in judicial-government history. This is not light reading, but this is engaging enough to keep the attention of teenagers and young adults to learn about how our system of laws plays out. It is a great read for anyone who is a lover of history and the Constitution that our soldiers and sailors take an oath to defend.

******I could teach a class now at the college since they are offering classes at Harvard on "The Wire" (I'll blog on this later).

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