Old Books Reading Challenge: The Brethren by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong

Some of you might remember from reading from one of my earlier posts that reading The Supremes’ Greatest Hits inspired me to read other books on the Supreme Court. One such book, The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court, has been on my to read list for centuries after I heard good things about it from my American  Government professor. So, inspired by his recommendation I bought a used copy of Woodward and Armstrong’s 1979 book at a local library book sale right after graduation. Unfortunately it sat unread in my personal library for years until Trachtman’s book inspired me to finally get off my duff and give The Brethren a chance. After finishing it last week I’m glad I did. I found The Brethren to be a highly detailed, provocative and no-holds bared look inside the early years of the Burger-led Supreme Court.

While the Warren Court will always be associated with a number of landmark cases involving civil rights, desegregation and church-state issues, the Warren Court would help shape America’s political and social landscape thanks to its rulings on cases involving abortion, forced busing, capital punishment, obscenity, press freedom, and (presidential) Executive privilege. Ironically, while the earlier Warren Court was seen by many Americans as being considerably liberal, by the midseventies anyway the Burger Court would in many ways continue this process, despite by having close to half its compliment of justices appointed by Republican presidents Nixon and Ford.

While the above-mentioned landmark decisions will surely be remembered by historians and jurists alike, after reading The Brethren it will be stories of the individual Justices that will stick with me for a long time. Considering that Bob Woodward (together with Carl Bernstein) brought the whole Watergate episode to light, Woodward’s portrayal of the Republican-appointed Justices, (save one), is remarkably positive. (The notable exception being Chief Justice Warren Burger who comes across as pompous, manipulative and completely lacking in the intellectual prowess appropriate for his appointed role). Marshall, while appearing somewhat lazy but also earthy, affable but occasionally cranky, nevertheless excels during oral arguments, probably as a result of his years of thinking on his feet while employed as an NAACP trial lawyer. The aged Douglas, in Woodward and Armstrong’s opinion, behaves as a crotchety old man, who despite the ravages of a debilitating stroke stubbornly refuses to resign. Rehnquist, an upstart conservative nominated by Nixon at the young age of 47, on the other hand gets a surprising sympathetic treatment by the book’s authors.

Even though the writing can get a bit long-winded a times, The Brethren is a great book when it comes to the revealing the almost sordid behind the scenes goings on at the Supreme Court. It’s already inspired me to read Jeffrey Toobin’s 2007 book The Nine, which so far anyway is shaping up to be an excellent book. And by the way, if you would like to read a very good review of The Brethren, feel free to drop by the book blog Fifty Books Project. If you have any interest in reading The Brethren you’ll be happy you did.

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10 Comments

Filed under History

10 responses to “Old Books Reading Challenge: The Brethren by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong

  1. I’d never really considered reading about the US Supreme Court but sounds like it was a rather interesting book – glad to hear that!

  2. Great review! (though I’m tempted to curse you for adding to my TBR…)

    : )

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