After having very good luck with books about the Supreme Court, I certainly felt optimistic when I first spotted Jeffrey Rosen’s 2007 book The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America during one of my frequent library visits. My optimism was heightened when upon closer inspection, I noticed on the front cover that his book was billed as a companion text to the American PBS TV series on the Court. Feeling lucky and hoping Rosen’s book was cut from the same cloth of other great PBS/BBC companion books like Sagan’s Cosmos, Yergin’s The Prize, Clark’s Civilisation and Karnow’s Vietnam: A History I eagerly grabbed it and headed to the automated check-out machine. Unfortunately, it looks my expectations might have been a bit too high. While I wouldn’t consider Rosen’s book a huge disappointment, for the most part it just wasn’t my cup of tea. Once again, just as with King’s book Ghost of Freedom, there are things about Rosen’s book to like and things not to like.
Just like with Ghost of Freedom, The Supreme Court contains a ton of information and definitely feels well-researched. Following in the footsteps of Woodward and Armstrong as well Toobin, Rosen did a very good job showing the individual justices as flesh blood personalities, each with their respective good attributes in addition to their less than flattering foibles. True to the book’s stated purpose, he did attempt to present a history of the Court as seen in the context of some of the great rivalries that have played out during the Court’s long history.
But in other ways, Rosen’s book falls a bit short. Foremost, with his dualistic approach in interpreting the 200-plus years of Supreme Court history as largely the product of ongoing rivalries between key historic figures as they squared off throughout the ages, sometimes his presentation feels narrow and even a bit forced. While I enjoyed most of the book’s chapters, the early chapter dealing with the rivalry between Chief Justice John Marshall and President Thomas Jefferson, (who wasn’t even a Supreme Court Justice) seemed overly long, causing me to eventually lose interest. Lastly, just like King’s Ghost of Freedom, I think Rosen’s book could have benefited from additional editing.
Lastly, Rosen does excel by proving quite convincingly that the most successful Supreme Court jurists with the most lasting legacies aren’t necessarily most intellectually gifted. Much like the venerable statesmen of old, they are the justices who can cement alliances, compromise when needed, and above all, conduct themselves (on and off the Court) with civility and decency. When scholars look back years from now and debate the merits of the various Supreme Court books, perhaps that above-mentioned conclusion will end up being Rosen’s lasting legacy.