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Books About the Supreme Court

Joan Biskupic, American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)

Veteran Washington journalist Joan Biskupic presents a detailed portrait of Justice Scalia and provides a comprehensive narrative that will engage Scalia’s adherents and critics alike. Drawing on her long tenure covering the Court and on unprecedented access to the justice, Biskupic delves into the circumstances of his rise and the formation of his rigorous approach on the bench.  This book shows us the man in power: his world, his journey, and the far-reaching consequences of a transformed legal landscape.

Joan Biskupic, Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice (HarperCollins, 2005)

This engaging portrait of a recently retired justice is written by USA Today’s Supreme Court correspondent (and frequent participant in our summer institute).

Stephen G. Breyer, Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge's View (Knopf, 2010)

Justice Breyer looks at how the Supreme Court evolved historically and defined its role largely in relation to the willingness of the public to embrace its decisions. He tells the story of President Jackson's grudging acceptance of a Court decision protecting the treaty rights of the Cherokee nation, only to seize their land using Federal troops.  In the Dred Scott decision, the pro-slavery Court violated the right of Free states to outlaw slavery.  And in Brown vs. the Kansas Board of Education, President Eisenhower used the Army to back up Court decisions against segregated education.  Breyer discusses recent Court decisions in favor of rights for Guantanamo detainees and examines the limitations of a President's power as Commander-in-Chief, even in wartime, contrasting this to the failure of the Court, Congress, and President Roosevelt over internment camps during WWII.  Justice Breyer's absorbing stories offer insight into how a democracy works, and sometimes fails.

Clare Cushman, Courtwatchers: Eyewitness Accounts in Supreme Court History (Supreme Court Historical Society, 2011)

In the first Supreme Court history told primarily through eyewitness accounts from Court insiders, Clare Cushman provides readers with a behind-the-scenes look at the people, practices, and traditions that have shaped an American institution for more than 200 years. Each chapter covers one general thematic topic and weaves a narrative from memoirs, letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts by the Justices, their spouses and children, court reporters, clerks, oral advocates, court staff, journalists, and other eyewitnesses. These accounts allow readers to feel as if they are squeezed into the packed courtroom in 1844 as silver-tongued orator Daniel Webster addresses the court; eavesdropping on an exasperated Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in 1930 as he snaps at a clerk’s critique of his draft opinion; or sharing a taxi with future Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., in 2005 as he rushes home from the airport in anticipation of a phone call from President Bush offering him the nomination to the Supreme Court. This entertaining and enlightening tour of the Supreme Court’s colorful personalities and inner workings will be of interest to all readers of American political and legal history.

Clare Cushman, Ed. Supreme Court Justices Illustrated Biographies 1798-1995
(Congressional Quarterly 1995).

This is the first one-volume biography of all 108 justices to serve on the Supreme Court. Targeted at the secondary school audience, this biographical dictionary of Supreme Court justices is organized chronologically by appointment to the Court. Five-page essays weave biographical data with information on decisions in which the justices played an important role. Each profile contains a black-and-white portrait and other illustrations or political cartoons relevant to the justices' careers. Entries help spotlight lesser-known justices such as Frank Murphy, who wrote a powerful dissenting opinion against the Japanese-American internment. An appendix contains a chart listing each member's home state, the president who appointed, dates of appointment, years of service, etc. A bibliography lists sources on the Court and individual justices. A detailed index includes references to cases.

C-SPAN, Brian Lamb, Susan Swain, and Mark Farkas, The Supreme Court: A C-SPAN Book, Featuring the Justices in their Own Words (PublicAffairs Books, 2010)

The Supreme Court grew out of a unique opportunity to interview all nine sitting Supreme Court Justices plus retired Justice O'Connor for a documentary on the Supreme Court. Transcripts from those interviews provide insight into the daily operations and history of the nation's highest court; facts about the building it occupies, trivia, and numerous personal recollections are also included, as are interviews with experts on the Court's history and daily operation.  An appendix presents short biographies of the justices, a list of everyone who has ever served on the Court, and a section noting petitions and arguments heard each year, from 1980 to 2008.

Neal Devins and Davison M Douglas, A Year at the Supreme Court (Duke University Press, 2004)

This collection of essays by Supreme Court journalists looks at the remarkable 2002 – 03 Term when the Court decided cases dealing with affirmative action, gay rights, hate speech, federal-state relations and criminal law.  Often criticized by liberals as a court of conservative judicial activists, the decisions from this term surprised and disappointed many.  These essays try to make sense of these rulings and help us understand the Rehnquist Court’s identify and role in the political life of the country.

Noah Feldman, Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices (Twelve, 2010)

The book tells the story of the four FDR Supreme Court appointees who have had the most lasting influence on the court: Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, Robert Jackson, and William O. Douglas.  It traces the path each justice took to get to the Court, as well as the relationship each had with FDR.  It examines the justices’ different approaches to constitutional interpretation, while discussing the important cases of the 1940's and 1950's throughout, culminating in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education.

Jan Crawford Greenburg, Supreme Conflict (Penguin Press, 2007)

Greenburg’s book is full of details about the Court and the justices, particularly focusing on the nominations process and how the past three Republican presidents have worked to shift the Court philosophically to the right.  Greenburg interviewed nine of the 11 justices who have served on the Court in the past three years, and the bulk of the book describes Justice O’Connor’s retirement, Chief Justice Rehnquist’s death, and the nominations of John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Harriet Miers.  

Linda Greenhouse, Becoming Justice Blackmun (Thomson Gale, 2005)

This book – subtitled “Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey” – is a fascinating look at the life and judicial career of the author of one of the Court’s most controversial opinions (Roe v. Wade).  Meticulously researched from the recently released Blackmun papers.

John Anthony Maltese, The Selling of Supreme Court Nominees, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995). 

This short, readable study traces the evolution of the contentious and controversial confirmation process awaiting today's nominees to the Court. The story begins with the quick and nearly secret consideration of nominees that characterized the Senate until the second half of the last century when social and technological changes led to the rise of organized interest groups at the same time that president became more active as policy leaders.

David O'Brien, Storm Center: The Supreme Court in American Politics (W.W. Norton, 1996, 4th edition).

Initially written when Professor O'Brien was a judicial fellow at the Court, some reviewers believed this book, first published in 1986, to be a much-needed antidote to The Brethren because of its meticulous documentation. Later editions include material on the Thomas Hearings and the impact of the newer members of the Rehnquist Court.

Sandra Day O'Connor, The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice, (Random House, 2003).

This book includes talks Justice O'Connor gave in the 20 years she served on the high court. It covers a wide range of topics from the Magna Carta to the struggle for women to get the right to vote. While providing interesting materials and legal history, the book avoids in depth discussions of controversial topics before the Court today.

Barbara A. Perry, The Priestly Tribe: the Supreme Court's Image in the American Mind (Praeger, 1999).

In this detailed examination of the Court, its justices, decisions, facilities and programs as well as its place in modern American culture, Professor Perry illustrates that the Court has consciously (and successfully) endeavored to preserve its exalted standing. Barbara Perry is one of the featured presenters at this institute, and we particularly recommend this book to participants. Also by Barbara Perry, A "Representative" Supreme Court? The Impact of Race, Religion, and Gender on Appointments, Greenwood Press, 1991.

H.W. Perry, Jr., Deciding to Decide: Agenda Setting in the United States Supreme Court (Harvard University Press, 1991).

Not the best book among these to read to get an overview of the Court but provides a through, somewhat academic analysis of the certiorari process.

William Rehnquist, The Supreme Court, (Vintage Books, 2002).

This book written by the chief justice is for lay readers to give them a better understanding of the role of the US Supreme Court in American government. The best material focuses on how the Court goes about its business ... oral arguments, conference, opinion writing and the like.

Ralph A. Rossum, Antonin Scalia’s Jurisprudence: Text and Traditions (University of Kansas Press, 2006)

This book is the first comprehensive, reasoned, and sympathetic analysis of how Justice Scalia has decided cases during his twenty year Supreme Court tenure.

David G. Savage, Turning Right: The Making of the Rehnquist Supreme Court (John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1993).

David Savage covers the Court for the Los Angeles Times. This is a behind the scenes, anecdotal account of the changes in the Court's direction and operation between 1986 (the year William Rehnquist became chief) and 1992. Contains an interesting chapter on the Thomas Hearings with a focus on the activities of Nan Aron, executive director of the Alliance for Justice.

Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (Thomson West, 2008)

This book systematically presents every important idea about judicial persuasion in a fresh, entertaining way.  It covers the essentials of sound legal reasoning, including how to develop the syllogism that underlies any argument.  From there the authors explain the art of brief-writing, especially what to include and what to omit, so that you can induce the judge to focus closely on your arguments. Finally, they show what it takes to succeed in oral argument.

Bernard Schwartz, A History of the Supreme Court (Oxford Press, 1993).

Constitution scholar Bernard Schwartz provides a thoroughly researched and readable chronological overview of the Supreme Court. He mixes biographical sketches of justices like John Marshall with insightful analyses of major decisions, offering also a close look at four watershed cases: Dred Scott v. Sandford, Lochner v. New York, Brown v. Board of Education, and Roe v. Wade.  This book is considered to be the best single volume history of the Court.

James F. Simon, The Center Holds: The Power Struggle Inside the Rehnquist Court (Simon and Schuster, 1995).

Looking at opinions of the Rehnquist Court in the areas of race, crime, abortion and the First Amendment, Professor Simon concludes that the extreme right has failed to overturn long-established fundamental rights.

Rodney A. Smolla, ed. A Year in the Life of the Supreme Court (Duke University Press, 1995).

This profile of the 1992-93 term is a collection of essays by many of the nation's premier Court-watchers, including David Savage, Aaron Epstein, Tony Mauro, and Lyle Denniston.

Kenneth Starr, First Among Equals: The Supreme Court in American Life, (Warner Books, 2002).

Written in a non-technical style by this former clerk to Chief Justice Burger, former US Court of Appeals judge, former US Solicitor General, and former professor of constitutional law -- who is best known for none of those jobs -- this book profiles several major decisions of the Rehnquist Court and also focuses on the leadership role played by certain justices in devising rationales that command a majority of the court.

Tinsley E. Tarborough, David Hackett Souter: Traditional Republican on the Rehnquist Court (Oxford University Press, 2005)

The is the first biography of Justice Souter and it includes interesting chapters on his confirmation process, Bush v. Gore, the Casey decision and his family background and pre-Court career.

Lawrence Wrightsman, The Psychology of the Supreme Court (Oxford University Press, 2006)

Wrightsman examines how the court functions from a psychological perspective.  His work focuses on how the Court makes its decisions in the context of how the justices interact with each other and with their clerks.  The book is not overly technical in terms of psychological concepts and helps illuminate the Court and its operation for a lay audience.  This book covers much of the terrain from the Supreme Court Summer Institute and is therefore useful as either preparation for or as a review of that program.

Books About Specific Cases Decided by the U.S. Supreme Court

  • Anthony Lewis, Gideon's Trumpet (Vintage Books, 1966).
  • Richard Kluger, Simple Justice (Vintage Books, 1975) (The story of Brown vs. Board of Education).
  • James T. Patterson, Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and its Troubled Legacy, (Oxford University Press, 2001).
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