After finishing The Brethren a few weeks ago I walked away from it thinking that Woodward and Armstrong’s 1979 book on the Burger Court is probably the best book ever written about the American Supreme Court. Well, after recently finishing Jeffery Toobin’s 2007 book The Nine: Inside The Secret World of the Supreme Court I might just have to rethink that.
Toobin, just like Woodward and Armstrong did with The Brethren, pulls back the curtain to expertly reveal the secretive goings on at the Nation’s highest Court. Toobin also shows us the diverse personalities of the Court’s Justices, proving that yes, theses are real flesh and blood individuals with their own strengths, weakness and prejudices. But when compared to Woodward and Armstrong, Toobin comes across a much better writer. Because of this his book The Nine is not only incredibly fascinating, it’s also a pleasure to read.
I suspect that Toobin’s book, just like Woodward and Armstrong’s The Brethren, is an honest one. By honest I mean in Toobin’s world there are no clear-cut villans on this Court. In The Brethren Douglas might have been a mean old man and Chief Justice Burger an incompetent and manipulative jerk but in Toobin’s The Nine no Justice comes off in a completely negative light. While Rehnquist and Scalia are both painted as being a bit crotchety, (and Scalia as probably too outspoken for his own good), all of the justices are portrayed has having at least some favorable qualities. Even Thomas, who is rightly depicted as a hard-right conservative ideologue, is also portrayed as being incredibly personable. Souter is an eccentric with Luddite tendencies, who probably would have been happier had he been born in the 19th century. Kennedy is decent but intellectually speaking a bit full of himself.
But the most interesting, and in my opinion the most likeable Justice by far is O’Connor. Thanks to her almost uncanny ability to derive her decisions not from some theoretical concept of jurisprudence but from some common sense will of the American people, she was the consummate swing voter, helping decide numerous high-profile cases. Going from an obscure Arizona judge to one of the most powerful and admired women in America, her life in itself would make for a fascinating book.
Toobin also spends considerable time discussing the political machinations associated with Justices’ appointment to the Court. Bush’s attempt to replace O’Connor with White House Counsel Harriet Miers and its disastrous results (thanks mostly to strong resistance on the part of the Christian Right), made for especially fascinating reading. Politics is a messy and dirty game and when it comes to telling Miers’s story Toobin pulls no punches.
If you haven’t guessed by know, I really enjoyed The Nine. When I put together my year-end list of the best books I read in 2011, there’s a good chance Toobin’s The Nine will be on it.