: Supreme conflict: the inside story of the struggle (9781594201011) : Jan Crawford Greenburg : Books
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Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story Of The Struggle

by Jan Crawford Greenburg
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The
  • Publishing date: 23/01/2007
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9781594201011
  • ISBN: 1594201013


With its closed chambers and formal language, the Supreme Court tends to deflect drama away from its vastly powerful proceedings. But its mysteries hold plenty of intrigue for anyone with the access to uncover them. In Supreme Conflict, Jan Crawford Greenburg has that access, and then some. With high-placed sourcing that would make Bob Woodward proud, she tells the story of the Court's recent decades and of the often-thwarted attempts by three conservative presidents to remake the Court in their image. Among the revelations are the surprising influence of the most-maligned justice, Clarence Thomas, and the political impact of personal relations among these nine very human colleagues-for-life. Written for everyday readers rather than legal scholars, her account sidesteps theoretical subtleties for a compelling story of the personalities who breathe life into our laws. --Tom Nissley

Crawford graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, and was a legal affairs reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Supreme Court correspondent for PBS's NewsHour before becoming the legal correspondent for ABC News. We had the chance to ask her a few questions about Supreme Conflict:

Questions for Jan Crawford Greenburg

Jan Crawford How hard was it to get the access to justices and clerks that you had for this book? Does the culture of the Court promote that kind of openness about their deliberations?

Jan Crawford Greenburg: Hard! And let me tell you it took some time--they weren't flinging open the doors of their chambers for the first few years I was covering the Court. It takes awhile to build relationships and trust, and I was fortunate enough to do that during the dozen years I've been covering the Supreme Court. As for openness, I think the culture of the Court instead promotes anonymity and privacy. The justices aren't like the people across the street in Congress, or down Pennsylvania Avenue in the White House. They don't hold press conferences or solicit media coverage of their views. They speak through their opinions. I was fortunate that they also chose to speak with me for this important book about the direction of the Supreme Court and its role in our lives. Harry Blackmun's notes must be a treasure chest for Court historians. Could you describe what you found there?

Greenburg: A treasure chest is an understatement. Harry Blackmun took extraordinarily detailed notes--almost breathtaking in their scope and level of detail. (He would even write down what lawyers were wearing when they'd appear in Court to argue a case.) He recorded the justices' comments during their private conferences--when they discuss cases--and he took down their votes. And he kept all the key memos and letters that the justices would send back and forth when they were discussing a case. It was a tremendous window into the Court's inner sanctum, during some of the most pivotal years for the institution. One of the biggest revelations of your book is your characterization of Clarence Thomas as far more influential, even in his first year on the Court, than he's usually given credit for. Could you describe what his role on the Court has been?

Greenburg: Clarence Thomas has been the most maligned justice in modern history--and also the most misunderstood and mischaracterized. I found conclusive evidence that far from being Antonin Scalia's intellectual understudy, Thomas has had a substantial role in shaping the direction of the Court--from his very first week on the bench. The early storyline on Thomas was that he was just following Scalia's direction, or as one columnist at the time wrote, "Thomas Walks in Scalia's Shoes." That is patently false, as the documents and notes in the Blackmun papers unquestionably show. If any justice was changing his vote to join the other that first year, it was Scalia joining Thomas, not the other way around. But his clear and forceful views affected the Court in unexpected ways. Although he shored up conservative positions, his opinions also caused moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to back away and join the justices on the Left. Not every Supreme Court confirmation is a battle, even when the Senate and the President are from different parties. What separates the candidates who sail through from the ones who get put through the wringer?

Greenburg: The recent appointment of Samuel Alito shows a justice with a clearly conservative record can get confirmed--and even pick up some votes from Democrats. Maybe the secret is developing a reputation as a fair and nonpartisan judge on a federal appeals court. At his hearings, liberal and conservative judges who had worked with him on the appeals court testified in his behalf, as did his law clerks--some of whom were self-identified liberals. Alito was the conservative counterpart to Clinton nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She had been an outspoken advocate for liberal causes (including the ACLU), but she'd developed a reputation as a fair and thoughtful judge on the federal appeals court, garnering respect from both sides. How much do Americans know about how their federal courts work? What should they know?

Greenburg: Most Americans, understandably, think about trials and drama when the issue of the courts is raised. But the appeals courts--and the Supreme Court--remain mysterious, even though those courts have an enormous impact on American life. The judiciary is one of the three branches of government, but its decisions take on outsized importance at times. It can provide a vital check against abuse of individual rights by government--but it also can usurp the role of the people when it reaches out and takes on issues that more appropriately belong in the purview of the other branches. Even though you show how our expectations for where new members will take the Court are so often wrong, I'll ask you anyway: What do you expect in the next few years from the Roberts Court?

Greenburg: To be more conservative than the one led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist. John Roberts himself is a solid judicial conservative who believes the Court has too often taken on issues that belong in the realm of elected legislatures. He is advocating a more restrained approach, with greater consensus among the justices. In addition, Justice Alito replaced key swing-voter Sandra Day O'Connor, the Court's first female justice. O'Connor's vote often carried the day on the closely divided Court--and she typically sided with liberals on social issues like abortion, affirmative action, and religion. Alito is more conservative, and I expect to see the Court turn to the right on those and other issues.

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  • Gripping, Informative, and Objective
    From Amazon

    From 1981 to 2005, Republican presidents filled seven of nine Supreme Court vacancies yet failed to fundamentally alter the direction of the post-Warren Court due to the frustrating tendency of nominees to drift to the ideological left once seated on the bench. SUPREME CONFLICT is a gripping behind-the-scenes account of each of those nine confirmation battles, the ensuing impact of each new justice on the Court's makeup, and how George W. Bush, with the confirmations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, finally succeeded where both his father and Ronald Reagan failed: naming two reliable conservative votes to the Court and altering its direction rightward for decades to come. Though the main focus of SUPREME CONFLICT is on external attempts to reshape the Court through the nomination process, the book is also replete with scoops and vignettes that take the reader inside the conference room and illuminate the internal dynamics among the nine justices. O'Connor is portrayed as an unprincipled jurist highly sensitive to criticism and perceived slights from other members of the Court. Kennedy comes across as pompous, wishy-washy, and easily influenced by elites and public opinion, while Souter is presented as eccentric, indecisive, and overwhelmed. Interestingly, we also learn that the relationship between Scalia and Thomas, long portrayed as that of mentor-protégé, is actually a reciprocal one, with Thomas influencing Scalia about as often as Scalia influences Thomas. Greenburg also offers insight into the Court's deliberations in some of the biggest cases of the past 30 years, including Allegheny County v. ACLU, Lee v. Weisman, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and Bush v. Gore. These discussions touch superficially on the Court's legal reasoning in the given case, but the focus again is on the backroom machinations, personality conflicts, and wheeling-and-dealing that led to the ultimate result. For instance, we learn Kennedy flip-flopped in both Weisman and Casey to side with the liberals at the eleventh hour; O'Connor, who favored a subjective, policy-oriented approach to deciding cases, reflexively recoiled from ideological language and would strategically file concurring opinions to dilute the influence of Brennan, Scalia, and Thomas; and the Court's muddled reasoning in Bush v. Gore was actually the work of liberals Breyer and Souter (the five conservatives wanted to decide the case on the stronger ground that the Florida Supreme Court violated Article II's requirement that electors be selected in a manner prescribed by the state legislature when it altered and disregarded a series of statutory election procedures and deadlines, but agreed to the Breyer-Souter equal protection reasoning so it would be a bipartisan 7-2 decision instead of a partisan 5-4 one). The few negative reviews of this wonderful book have criticized it for not offering particularly deep legal analysis, but that is to take this effort for what it is not rather than what it is--a straightforward journalistic narrative. That's not to say that SUPREME CONFLICT is perfect. Greenburg has a tendency to needlessly repeat herself, her sparing references to dates sometimes leave the reader with a muddled timeline, and her sweeping conclusion that the confirmations of Roberts and Alito mean the Court is "now poised to recede from some of the divisive cultural debates" is more tenuous than she leads the reader to believe, as Kennedy remains a crucial swing vote who has often sided with the liberals in creating new, unwritten "constitutional" rights. Bush certainly moved the Court rightward by replacing O'Connor with Alito, but how much so remains to be seen and Greenburg may very well be overly optimistic in her assessment. Nevertheless, these are minor criticisms that don't substantially detract from the book's informative value or the reader's enjoyment. SUPREME CONFLICT was published in 2007 at almost the same time as Jeffrey Toobin's arguably more well-known but inarguably vastly inferior THE NINE. Where THE NINE drips with the author's liberal bias and thinly-veiled contempt for conservative judicial ideology, SUPREME CONFLICT is refreshingly objective and evinces a better understanding of the subject matter. It's also better written and more informative. Timely, engaging, and insightful, SUPREME CONFLICT sets a high bar for contemporary Supreme Court journalism.

  • ewgog (croton)
    From Amazon

    A fast, easy read with no getting lost in the weeds. If you want an entertaining and balanced overview of the makeup of the court, then this book may well fit the bill; if you want more inside dirt or tendentious treatment of the issues, there are always other choices: Access Hollywood, Chelsea Lately, Spongebob or NPR perhaps.

  • Does not adequately cover details of 8th amendment case
    From Amazon

    In chapter 5, the author writes of Thomas's dissenting opinion in an 8th amendment case. He claimed that an inmate, Keith Hudson, who was beaten by prison guards, was not subjected to "cruel and unusual punishment", a violation of the 8th Amendment The author minimizes the brutal beating for which Keith Hudson filed suit claiming his 8th amendment rights were violated. She does not mention that Hudson was handcuffed and shackled when the prison guards punched and kicked him. Nor does she describe his injuries. The beating left Hudson with a cracked dental plate, split lip, body bruises, swollen eyes and peeing blood. He was given no medical attention, but he spent most of the next 3 days curled up under his bunk. A much more complete reporting of this incident is in the book, Supreme Discontent by Merida and Fletcher. According to Supreme Discontent, in an early draft, Thomas wrote "If there is anything in this case that would shock our society, it is the notion that a punishment that causes no injury at all or only minor injury, may be defined cruel and unusual." Because of this callous attitude, a New York Times editorial called Thomas "the youngest and cruelest justice." Perhaps Justice Thomas based his opinion on "original intent?" At the time the Eighth Amendment was written, punishments that were generally considered cruel and unusual, included hanging, drawing, and quartering; burning at the stake; and impalement; but not getting beaten by prison guards.

  • Good insight
    From Amazon

    Well documented accounts of the White House battle to shift or to keep the Supreme Court's ideology. Crawford goes into great detail about how presidents selected their nominees, the nomination process, the failures and success of the nominees and the white house. She also gives a closer look at past and current Justices, on their views, and how some under pressure would change their ideology.

    From Amazon


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