The Supreme Court is probably not the subject of as many books year to year as Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War. But this year it seemed to be a close contender.
Numerous books about the court, including at least one work of fiction, were published in 2012. There were enough to warrant a panel discussion at Georgetown University Law Center’s Supreme Court Institute on the joys and perils of writing books about the court’s more human side.
Just in time for last-minute holiday shopping for the Supreme Court nerds in your life, here is a quick rundown of some, though not all, of the noteworthy court-related books published this year.
Two are in the must-read category: The Oath, by Jeffrey Toobin, and Law Man, by Shon Hopwood. Toobin’s is a sequel to his bestseller The Nine of five years earlier. Using the bungled swearing-in of Barack Obama as president in 2009 as a starting point, Toobin charts the tension between the Obama administration and the Roberts Court, ending with the decision on the Affordable Care Act, which Toobin views as a long-term conservative win, even though it upheld Obama’s signature policy achievement. Toobin’s talent at finding meaning and suspense in even the most routine cases and events at the court make the book a good read.
Much of Law Man has nothing to do with the Supreme Court, and everything to do with the author’s early adulthood as a bank robber and prison inmate – riveting narratives, well told. Hopwood found redemption as a jailhouse lawyer who filed successful cert petitions at the Supreme Court, giving readers an unusual peek at how the court picks cases to review. He ended up working with former solicitor general Seth Waxman from inside prison, and saw the Supreme Court as “the court that literally changed my life.” It’s a great story. Hopwood is now a student at the University of Washington School of Law
Justice Antonin Scalia’s second book written jointly with legal writing expert Bryan Garner also came out in 2012, giving Scalia a summertime platform to make the rounds of talk shows. Titled Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, it may sound like a snoozer. But it is an often amusing primer on rules of interpretation, delineating enough canons to support almost any reading of a law. It triggered an angry summertime feud between Scalia and Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, who did not care for the book.
The Partisan, the first full-fledged biography of the late chief justice William Rehnquist, has come in for criticism for portraying Rehnquist as an unrelentingly partisan conservative—not as the onetime lone dissenter who evolved into as a more mellow compromiser toward the end of his tenure. Author John Jenkins races a bit too fast past Rehnquist’s rulings and jurisprudence. But the book is well worth reading for the insights it gives into Rehnquist the man—his Milwaukee upbringing, his early legal career in Phoenix, his days in the Nixon Justice Department, and then as a quirky, sometimes mischievous justice who played pranks on Warren Burger and wanted the reporters who cover the court to put on skits for the court.
For more personal insights about past justices, two more books merit a close look: In Chambers¸a fascinating collection of remembrances by high court law clerks, edited by Todd Peppers and Artemus Ward, and Courtwatchers, by Clare Cushman, a rich look at the personalities and dynamics of the justices since the beginning days of the court. And for a great back-pocket primer on how the court operates, try The U.S. Supreme Court: A Very Short Introduction by Pulitzer Prize winner Linda Greenhouse.
And don’t forget The Last Justice by Anthony Franze, the latest in the genre of Supreme Court fiction. The plot may be improbable – six justices are assassinated by page two—but Franze, a member of Arnold & Porter’s appellate and Supreme Court practice, did his homework and gives impeccably accurate detail about the court and its inner workings. Even the solicitor general—rarely a protagonist or any other kind of character in a novel—gets entangled in the fast-moving events of this thriller.
More Supreme Court books will see the light of day next year. At least two justices—one current and the other retired—are due out with books in 2013. Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir My Beloved World, details of which are beginning to dribble out, promises an intimate narrative of her journey from her childhood in a housing project in the Bronx to the federal bench. Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s latest, titled Out of Order, will be a more historical look at the court’s traditions and people.
Veteran NLJ colleague Marcia Coyle’s book titled The Roberts Court: The Struggle for the Constitution will be published in May. Josh Blackman, an enthusiastic blogger on the court and law professor at South Texas College of Law, is aiming for a fall release of Unprecedented: The Supreme Challenge to Obamacare. Fall will also bring a book on the political and social history that led to the appointment of the first Hispanic justice, by Joan Biskupic, author of several books on the court and an editor at Reuters.
Tony Mauro can be contacted at email@example.com.