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Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin, 2007, * * * *

It's not laws or constitutional theory that rules the High Court, argues this absorbing group profile, but quirky men and women guided by political intuition. New Yorker legal writer Toobin (The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson) surveys the Court from the Reagan administration onward, as the justices wrestled with abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty, gay rights and church-state separation. Despite a Court dominated by Republican appointees, Toobin paints not a conservative revolution but a period of intractable moderation. The real power, he argues, belonged to supreme swing-voter Sandra Day O'Connor, who decided important cases with what Toobin sees as an almost primal attunement to a middle-of-the-road public consensus. By contrast, he contends, conservative justices Rehnquist and Scalia have constitutional doctrines made irrelevant by the moderates' compromises. Toobin distills the issues and enlivens his narrative of the Court's internal wranglings with sharp thumbnail sketches (Anthony Kennedy the vain bloviator, David Souter the Thoreauvian ascetic) and editorials (inept and unsavory is his verdict on the Court's intervention in the 2000 election). His savvy account puts the supposedly cloistered Court right in the thick of American life. In 1979, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong published The Brethren, an eye-popping look into the closed world of the Supreme Court under then-Chief Justice Warren Burger. Toobin captures the personalities, rivalries, politics and principles that drive the court's decisions.  With the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, this book should be required reading.

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