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The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court


The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

more than 31 years of law practice, the closest I've come to the
United States Supreme Court was a 1982 trip sponsored by our county
bar association, when a busload of lawyers who wanted to be
admitted to the Court traveled from Pennsylvania for a mass
swearing-in ceremony. I have an impressive certificate and some
photos of our group standing on the Court's steps to show for that
experience. Because the odds of my having a case before the Court
are about the same as being struck by lightning, I'm delighted
someone of Jeffrey Toobin's skill has come forward in this
fascinating book to serve as my guide to the past 25 years of the
Supreme Court's work.

Admirers of Toobin's thoughtful and articulate legal commentary on
CNN won't be surprised by the quality of THE NINE. He is a graceful
writer and demonstrates his prose mastery, whether he's summarizing
a complex legal case or delivering an anecdote about one of the
justices. THE NINE is the product of thorough research ---
principally interviews with the justices and 75 of their law
clerks, albeit on a "not for attribution" basis.

Toobin does a workmanlike job of chronicling the major legal issues
with which the Court has grappled over this time period ---
abortion, separation of church and state, affirmative action and
the death penalty among them. He offers more extensive summaries of
two --- the Clinton impeachment case (given life by the Court's
naïve ruling in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case) and
Bush v. Gore, when the Court, by a 5-4 vote, effectively
decided the 2000 election. He also contrasts the Court's almost
unseemly eagerness to take up the Florida election controversy with
its refusal to become enmeshed in the Terry Schiavo case, making it
the only branch of the federal government to emerge from the latter
fiasco with its integrity intact.

What gives THE NINE its real flavor are the portraits of the
justices Toobin weaves throughout the book and the revealing
stories he uses to paint those mini-biographies. One startling
example of his apt choice of telling details will have to suffice
to illustrate this point: The enigmatic David Souter, appointed by
George H.W. Bush in 1990 (and later a textbook example of the way
in which justices often have surprised and disappointed the
presidents appointing them), considered leaving the Court in 2001
in frustration over the decision in Bush v. Gore. "There
were times," Toobin writes, when David Souter thought of Bush
v. Gore
and wept."

Toobin offers an especially sympathetic appraisal of Sandra Day
O'Connor, appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1981 as the first female
justice. Over the course of a career spanning almost 25 years,
O'Connor's swing vote helped shaped the Court's decisions on
critical issues like abortion and affirmative action. A former
state legislator, O'Connor felt herself particularly attuned to the
political impact of the Court's decisions. With her departure,
Anthony Kennedy, decidedly more conservative, now occupies that
critical swing position, and the results of that shift became clear
in the Court's 2006 term. As the late justice William Brennan liked
to state, the most important law at the Supreme Court is "the law
of five. With five votes you can do anything around here."

In the final section of THE NINE, Toobin focuses on the process
that led to the selection of John Roberts as first an associate
justice and shortly thereafter chief justice when William Rehnquist
died in 2005, and Samuel Alito to fill the seat of O'Connor in
2006. In fact, President Bush almost certainly would have preferred
his Texas colleagues and friends Alberto Gonzalez and Harriet Miers
for those seats, but neither could withstand the ideological
scrutiny of conservative legal and political groups. Coming on the
heels of Hurricane Katrina, the Miers confirmation fiasco was a
particular embarrassment to the Bush administration.

Observing, in the end, that there's little difference between the
left and right of the Court in terms of legal skills, Toobin
concludes that what separates the justices is ideology: "Future
justices will all likely be similarly qualified to meet the basic
requirements of the job. It is their ideologies that will shape the
Court and thus the nation." While predicting the longevity of
Supreme Court justices can be a risky business, there's a good
chance that the next president will have the opportunity to fill at
least two vacancies, most likely from the Court's "liberal" wing.
Whether you're a liberal or a conservative, Toobin's book should be
required reading for anyone who wants to know what's really at
stake in the Presidential election of 2008.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg ( on January 13, 2011

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court
by Jeffrey Toobin

  • Publication Date: September 18, 2007
  • Genres: Law, Nonfiction, Politics
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385516401
  • ISBN-13: 9780385516402