The Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court

Author: William H. Rehnquist
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Copyright: 2002
Pages: 302
Cover Price: $ 15.95

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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

Background Information

The Supreme Court is the highest judicial body in the country, and judges the actions of citizens and governments alike on the basis of the Constitution. Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, whose appointments are for life, have a single vote in decisions but are instrumental in forming court opinions. In the Dred Scott decision, the US Supreme Court outraged opinion in the North by interpreting slaveholding rights as extending anywhere, including free states. All justices of the Supreme Court have a single vote in decisions and all but the Chief Justice are known as Associate Justices.