Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A People’s History of the Supreme Court – Peter Irons (2006)

A People’s History of the Supreme Court is modeled after Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, a book I have not read but have often seen in the bookshelves of friends.  As such this review may be lacking.  It would be interesting to compare the books to one another and see which is more “readable.”  This book clocks in at 531 pages and covers the period between 1787 and 2006.  It mentions every single Supreme Court Justice, but it is less about the personnel of the Court than the cases brought before it.  There are glimmers of greatness in this book, but I must confess that it eventually began to bog me down.  This may be attributed to the fact that I have previously read and reviewed The Brethren, Wild Bill, and The Nine—three books which mine similar territory to this book’s final 130 pages.  Regardless, the first 400 pages were often more interesting than not, and Irons has created a largely admirable work. 

But first, I cannot resist tying in a personal connection.  Few readers of Flying Houses have been with us from the beginning (those inauspicious days of April through July of 2008), but it is worth noting that Irons’s literary agent was the subject of an early post.  “Finally, let me thank some of the people who helped make this book come to life.  My agent, Sandy Dijkstra, found my editor, Jane von Mehren, whose meticulous and thoughtful editing has improved the book immeasurably.” (xix) Now, there are not all that many literary agents.  There are the heavy hitters, and they keep large rosters of writers.  However, I found this mention quite ironic.  Ms. Dijkstra was the only agent to respond to my query on my first novel.  She rejected it, and I attacked her in the post linked to above, which mentioned her derision for the original title of The Joy Luck Club

First, let me note that I am not the same person I was in 2008.  Many changes have taken place and I would probably not be so critical of Ms. Dijkstra as I was in those impetuous days of my mid-20’s.  Second, let me note that my complaints have not abated, and that the publishing industry continues to irk me to no end.  I went to law school in a time of economic turmoil, and I felt that getting a job with a law degree would be easier than getting a first novel published.  My dreams remain intact, however, and soon it will be time to test those waters again.

With that out of the way, Irons opens up his book by explaining that he was an ex-con admitted to Harvard in his mid-thirties.  He went to jail, “serving a three-year sentence for refusing military induction in 1963.” (xvii)  He also was instrumental in reopening the wartime internment cases of Fred Korematsu, Min Yasui, and Gordon Hirabayashi.  In short, Irons mentions these facts in the introduction to the book as a way of setting up the reader’s expectations.  Yes, he is probably going to be taking a “liberal” stance on the cases to be discussed. 

This does not make the book any less valuable, however, because Irons is a very good researcher.  The book opens with what is probably its strongest point of coverage: the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, PA in 1787.  For the first 75 pages or so, Irons brings the real “framers” to life and makes it feasible for 21st century readers to understand them and maybe even identify with them.  This part of the book is truly special because there have been numerous debates about the “original intent of the framers” and how to decide cases from a “textualist” perspective.  Irons delves deeply into this material—but not so deeply as to make it a bore.  I have to believe that many Americans would find this portion of the book to be a “page turner,” even though it makes virtually no mention of the English court system or how the American court system would differ.  He does offer up a real stinger to the pro-gun lobby:

“In recent years, advocates on both sides of the ‘gun control’ issue have debated the ‘original intent’ of those who framed the Second Amendment.  Elbridge Gerry, Madison’s adversary in both Philadelphia and New York, offered this defense of the proposed amendment: ‘What, sir, is the use of a militia?  It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty.’  Arming the citizens who belonged to state militias, Gerry argued, would deter Congress from establishing a federal army that might oppress or invade the states.  Those who now advocate the constitutional ‘right’ of every citizen to ‘bear arms’ of any kind—from cheap handguns to assault rifles—are well advised to read the debates that led to adoption of the Second Amendment.  Not a single member countered Gerry’s argument that the ‘right to bear arms’ was limited to members of a state militia.  The current opponents of gun control legislation pay little heed to the Framer who spoke most clearly to the ‘intent’ of Congress on this controversial issue.” (75)  

From there, he moves into a discussion of George Washington’s first appointments to the Supreme Court.  This may well be the most hilarious portion of the text.  It is understandable that the Court seems “bush league” because it was in its infancy.  They barely have any work to do at first, and many of the Justices simply failed to show up for work.  Nobody really seemed to care, though.  The Supreme Court was in New York City in those early days.  It is worth noting that Irons writes with an eye towards entertaining “lay readers” (i.e. those that have not studied the primary materials themselves) and at times he writes with literary flair:

“The men Washington placed on the Court, in contrast [to Franklin Roosevelt], were a thoroughly undistinguished lot.  One spent time in debtors’ prisons for defaulting on loans; one returned his commission after five days to serve in state office; one never attended a single Court session; one was impeached for political bias on the bench; one was insane; and another was senile.” (86)

Things changed in 1801 when John Marshall took the post of Chief Justice.  Irons mentions that there are more than twenty books about Marshall and practically everything is praiseworthy.  Irons is careful, however, and keeps a critical eye on the Justices, primarily in regards to their views on slavery.  He is very tough on Marshall’s successor, Roger Brooke Taney, whom he denounces as a “racist” perhaps a dozen times, but he is more even-handed with Marshall:

“For almost two centuries, praise for Marshall as a judicial statesman has far outweighed criticism of his role as Chief Justice.  But the historical scale requires some balance.  Marshall was plain and humble in person, yet he was an aristocrat in outlook.  He came from a state [Virginia] that vigorously insisted on its ‘sovereign’ rights within the Union, but he favored the ‘General Government’ in almost every case he decided.  He read the Constitution broadly to protect the rights of property, but narrowly when he addressed individual rights.  Most important, Marshall disregarded his ‘feelings of humanity’ and looked at blacks as property, not as persons.  This last weight on the historical scale strips the mantle of ‘statesman’ from Marshall’s shoulders.” (141)

At this point it seems prudent to consider the usefulness of this book to law students.  There is probably no better book for incoming 1Ls to law school than this, for it covers almost every single case that will be encountered in any course on Constitutional Law.  This is what makes the book largely admirable.  While The Nine may be a more intriguing read because it covers events that most of us are not too young to remember, this book explains the foundations of the major doctrines of Constitutional Law—it is thorough on First Amendment cases and the Equal Protection Clause; it mentions substantive due process in passing; it covers the early Commerce Clause cases in fair detail (but unfortunately fails to mention Wickard, Lopez, Morrison, or Raich); it covers the “laissez-faire” period of the Court and the Lochner decision quite well; and it draws useful distinctions on the voting of certain Justices on the value of precedent and deference to the legislature against judicial “activism” and “voting from the gut.” And the Table of Contents will be useful for law students that wish to gain a more “human” grasp on what is actually being said in the opinions they are studying, for it includes all the cases mentioned.

The coverage of the major Marshall Court decisions is phenomenal.  Marbury v. Madison and Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee are brought to life, and Irons thankfully explains Marshall’s personal role in each, which some professors may mention but may just confuse law students, for the facts behind each case are so bizarre.

His coverage on Chief Justice Taney’s reign is focused squarely on the Dred Scott decision.  I had no idea how complicated the facts behind this case were, but while Irons explains that details on it are sketchy, he does an excellent job of telling the story of how Dred Scott came to bring his case before the Supreme Court.  This is a very long section of the book and probably has the most detailed analysis of any single decision.  This case is not a major point of study in law school, but it is interesting reading. 

He also covers the case Ex parte Milligan in good enough detail that it will prove helpful for law students.  This is a case that is studied more often, and it is these early cases (up through the Slaughterhouse Cases) that make for the most difficult reading in a law school course and accordingly prove to be the most valuable portions of the book.  But what comes across most clearly is Irons’s distaste for Taney:

“Lincoln correctly charged Taney with trying to ‘nationalize slavery’ by his twisted and tortured reading of the Constitution in Dred Scott.  That his opinion was ultimately reversed by constitutional amendment is no consolation to the hundreds of thousands of young men who died after the Supreme Court shot holes through the Constitution.  It is fitting to speak ill of the dead when they committed acts of infamy.  Taney wrote an infamous opinion in Dred Scott, and no later judgments of his judicial ‘greatness’ can remove that stain from the Court’s history.” (184)

Irons also does his best to define what “partisanship” meant in the 19th century, but I must confess that I still find what the parties stood for to be confusing:

“(The change in party labels requires a brief digression to avoid confusion.  The Federalists changed their name to the Whig Party between 1836 and 1856, when they became the second Republican Party, adopting the name of their former opponents.  The Jeffersonians who first called themselves Republicans abandoned that name in 1828—after using the hybrid title of Democratic-Republican for several years—to become the Democrats.  If this sounds confusing, it is.  But the nineteenth century saw a proliferation of party labels, including Free-Soil, Liberty, Union, American, and Anti-Mason.)” (122)

The next major point the book takes on is Plessy v. Ferguson.  This will be more useful than the coverage on the Dred Scott case because it is arguably more infamous for its precedential value.  (Irons also covers the Yick Wo v. Hopkins case and explains its facts quite well.) While the story of Homer Plessy is not quite as entertaining as that of Dred Scott, it is interesting to know that he could “pass” as a white man and that he actually wanted to get arrested so that he could challenge the separate accommodations for whites and blacks at the time.  Here, Justice John Marshall Harlan is the only dissenter in the case, and he emerges as one of the more noteworthy Justices and not just because his grandson would take up the post 44 years after he retired.  Again, Irons turns a critical eye on an apparently “liberal” justice that is worthy of praise:

“The notion of a ‘color-blind’ Constitution has enormous appeal as a guiding principle.  But there are dangers in substituting slogans for hard, realistic analysis.  Harlan’s famous sentence [‘Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.’] has been ripped from its context by those—including Supreme Court justices—who have wielded it in recent years as a weapon against affirmative action and other ‘race-conscious’ remedial laws and programs.  Those who quote the ‘color-blind’ sentence invariably fail to quote the sentences that preceded it in Harlan’s opinion.  ‘The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country,’ he wrote.  ‘And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power.  So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty.’
Harlan stated in these sentences the reality of race in 1896.  Whites held the reins of power, which they used to whip blacks into submission.  Harlan does not deserve scorn for acknowledging this reality, however much it reflected the ‘pride of race’ that he celebrated.  He had no more desire for ‘social equality’ with blacks than Justice Brown.  He was, after all, a man of his times, the son of slave owners and a man of superior prestige, education, wealth, and power.  But he was not a racist like Chief Justice Taney.” (230-231)

Irons makes a similar point about Abraham Lincoln, quoting from a speech where he says that he is not for social equality with blacks, though he is definitely against slavery.  This is surprising and some of these glimpses into the realities of the times are another factor that make this book worth reading. 
However, around this point, Irons switches his focus to the First Amendment, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and the Schenk case in 1917.  He focuses on the “incitement” cases during World War I in First Amendment jurisprudence for quite a while, perhaps because of his own skirmishes with the law in the 1960s.  While this coverage is good, it is at this point that the Court’s decisions began to speak more for themselves than coverage on them.  There is quality coverage on Holmes as one of the greatest Justices in history, and also Louis Brandeis.  But, at least in my course in the First Amendment, our professor covered these cases in such fine detail that Irons’s descriptions amounted to little more than a nostalgia trip. 

He does cover the New Deal cases in excellent detail—the Schecter Poultry v. United States, West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, and National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Company cases are quite important in defining the contours of the Commerce Clause, and law students are likely to find Irons’s emphasis of the importance of these decisions useful.  But it is also at this point that I began to lose interest in the book and “went through the motions.”  Of course, I was excited for the year 1939:

“Born in Minnesota in 1898 and raised in Washington state, William O. Douglas went east as a young man to Columbia Law School, where he taught after graduating at the top of his class [Not exactly—see Wild Bill review].  He moved to Yale’s law faculty in 1928, joining the ‘legal realists’ who looked behind judicial doctrine to explore the social, political, and economic forces that shaped the law.  Douglas staked a claim in the growing field of public and corporate finance, and Roosevelt picked the young professor to head the Securities and Exchange Commission.  Word got around that Douglas was a card shark, and he soon became one of the president’s ‘poker buddies’ and a New Deal insider.  Ironically, the only four senators who voted against his confirmation opposed Douglas as a ‘reactionary tool of Wall Street.’
William Douglas joined the Court at forty, the youngest justice since Joseph Story.  He stayed for thirty-six years, the longest tenure of any justice.  Douglas came to the bench without a well-defined judicial philosophy, and left as he came.  Much like the woodsman he was, Douglas avoided the beaten path and blazed his own trail.  Raised in poverty and struck by polio as a child, he developed a visceral sympathy for society’s ‘outcasts,’ including Communists and criminals.  He shared Frankfurter’s expansive view of due process and Black’s ‘absolutist’ devotion to the Bill of Rights.  Douglas was often criticized for failing to articulate a coherent judicial philosophy.  Certainly he never followed the narrow—but divergent—path from which Frankfurter and Black rarely strayed.  But there was an animating principle behind the twelve hundred opinions Douglas wrote over more than three decades.  ‘Our starting point has always been the individual, not the state,’ he wrote in 1958.  However far he wandered from the beaten path, Douglas never lost sight of his judicial lodestar.” (328-329)

So I really cannot complain about the coverage of Douglas, except that it is short and mentions nothing about his personal life.  There is also a nice quote about Justice Brennan:

“Perhaps the warmest tribute came from a former law clerk, Richard Posner, now a notably conservative federal judge.  Justice Brennan’s lasting influence, Posner wrote, stemmed less from his ‘commitment to a doctrine’ than from ‘the emanation of a warm, generous, and good-hearted person.’” (474)

There is not much else I can say about this book.  I think I have made my points relatively clear.  There are better books to read about the Court in the 20th Century, but I have not read anything as compelling as this on the 18th and 19th century Court (though I have not been very interested in reading anything about it also).  Irons chief focus seems to be racism and later on, affirmative action programs, sprinkled in with the two major gay rights cases in 1986 and 2003.  He ends in 2006, largely focusing on the Guantanamo Bay cases, and barely mentioning Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito.  As I mentioned in the review for How Judges Think, this book may be due for a revision.  It is unfortunate that Irons does not mention Buckley v. Valeo, but any description of the Court that includes 2010 will include Citizens United and any mention of that case requires reference to Buckley.  This book was already revised once, however, and it is unclear that much could be added, though the opinions handed down by the Court this past summer certainly fall in line with Irons’s predictions regarding the path of gay rights.  Jeffrey Toobin did an excellent job on Citizens United and the Affordable Care Act Cases in The Oath so there is at least good reading material out there.  Irons work as a scholar of the “ancient history” of the Court is what makes this book most special, and though I have not read Zinn’s famous volume, I am sure this stands up alongside it fairly well. 

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