Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Book Review: The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin

Most of the books I have reviewed on this blog have a Canadian focus, as do the overwhelming majority of the posts I write. When I first got interested in politics it was through carefully tracking American news. The rhetoric and debates in the United States were enough to turn me off so I stopped following so closely. As opposed to 24-hour cable news a more formal book on a specific topic is far more palatable.

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin is a history of the Rehnquist Court and the first years of the Roberts Court. Toobin is a journalist with a specialty in the Supreme Court and has written a number of books about the American judicial system.

The most remarkable aspect of the book, in my opinion, is the fascinating in-depth profiles of the justices of the Rehnquist Court; their histories, their philosophies, how they came to be appointed and their personalities. It is fair to say that the men and women who have made up the United States Supreme Court have been a somewhat eccentric bunch. Rehnquist Court was remarkable for its stability. The justices on that court served together a long time and saw very little turnover. Toobin depicts the insular, close-knit world of the Supreme Court well. To a great extent the facts speak for themselves. For example, John Roberts was a clerk for the Supreme Court and a pallbearer at Rehnquist's funeral.

It is  a jarring thought that nine individuals wield such incredible power, and yet receive very little scrutiny in a sense. While less true now, I think that was definitely the case in the period before the 1990s.  The turning point was, of course, Roe v. Wade. The legalization of abortion caused an incredible political shift in the United States, including within the judiciary. Toobin illustrates how a conservative reaction developed into institutions and schools of thought and advocacy groups for the anti-abortion movement and ideological conservatives. Antonin Scalia was an early member of this movement, but was relatively lonely and isolated until Bush's appointees.

One of the surprising aspects to the book is the seemingly ad hoc process by which American presidents appoint justices. Bill Clinton botched the roll out of his, and George W. Bush had the embarrassing episode with Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzales. Toobin offers a wonderful inside look into the entire process.

Some justices loom larger in the book than others. Perhaps the most significant is Sandra Day O'Connor who was the crucial swing vote in the Rehnquist years. Despite being a lifelong Republican and a conservative she sided with the liberal side of the bench on a number of decisions that helped protect abortion rights and affirmative action.

With that in mind Toobin suggests that the Bush appointments may have radical consequences for American political and social life. The book was published in 2007 and so Toobin could not, at the time, know how right he was. Alito, and Roberts have given the conservatives a majority with Scalia, Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy. Toobin has very little respect for Kennedy and finds him to be a grandstanding justice, perhaps best exemplified by the 2000 case Bush v. Gore. In the years since 2007 there have been no shortage of radical decisions of the Roberts Court to overturn long-standing precedents.

Toobin succeeds in giving us a glance in the small world of the United State Supreme Court. The writing is crisp, and entertaining and does not get bogged down in jargon. Toobin does a remarkable job in stitching together the story behind the scenes and humanizing the menacing figures in black robes. I think this book has a lot to offer anyone interested in recent American politics/history, and not just law. The court, Toobin concludes, is a reflection of its time. Now the court reflects the ideological divide that has shaped post-civil rights America. The author does well in selecting cases that illustrate the personality and dynamics of the court and presents them in a way a layperson can appreciate. Overall an engaging read on a sadly obscure topic of incredible importance.

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