Thursday, October 26, 2006

A People's History of the Supreme Court

I just finished reading a very informative book, A People’s History of the Supreme Court by Peter Irons. Now Mr. Irons is up front in his introduction that he is a liberal who views the Constitution as a living document that should grown and change with the times. So the book is full of subtle liberal ideas (for example extolling the ACLU as a liberty protection group while calling the ACLJ a "right-wing" organization), and many not so subtle liberal ideas. If one can look past such things, the book is very readable. It avoids getting bogged down in legal mumbo-jumbo, yet explains the issues plainly. In the more recent cases, he quotes quite freely from arguments before the court and the courts opinions are always quoted.

However, I still recommend this book because of two main reasons. First, it does take you through the most important cases in Supreme Court history, many of which you had probably never heard about before. The book goes all the way up to the confirmation of Justice Samuel Alito, so it is very up to date. And if you have the desire to watch confirmation hearings on TV, you will recognize all the cases that are discussed. Americans should be familiar with the third branch of government, and this book is a great way to get a historical overview of the Court.

Second, this book is a great peek into the mindset of liberals. Peter Irons’s view of the court is astounding. He never questions the idea that the court is meant for social change, cannot stand Justices who think social change should come through the ballot box, and has outright for contempt for judges that fail to change the culture. This book introduces you, at least briefly, to everyone who has ever sat on the court. The vast majority of Justices are reviewed as incompetent for not breaking new legal ground. Justice John McLean appointed by Andrew Jackson is a prime example. He authored 247 majority opinions, but is said to have “plowed old furrows”, and this quote is stated with approval, “Few justices have worked so hard, for so long, with such little impact.” A harsh statement, but one that shows social change, not following the law, is the goal of the Supreme Court.

Irons lavishes his highest praise on John Marshall and Joseph Story, and then later equal praise is given to Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Brennan, and Thurgood Marshall. These men were all quite liberal and extremely in favor of Federal power. William Brennan is the one who came up with the quote, “With five votes you can do anything around here.” Now contempt was poured out on many, but concentrated contempt found its home mainly with five Justices. Chief Justice Roger Taney received a great deal of bashing because of his Dredd Scott decision and because of his constant judicial restraint and state’s rights view. The other four men are known as the Four Horsemen of Reaction. They are Justices George Sutherland, Pierce Butler, Willis Van Devanter and James McReynolds. These men are hated because they believed in laissez-faire economics. They are the ones who opposed Franklin Roosevelt and did many things prior to FDR such as strike down the income tax, minimum wage laws and other pro-capitalism type decisions. I personally was amazed at how up front Mr. Irons was about his detest for the laissez-faire view and he propounded instead the ‘mixed’ system of FDR, which he was admitting was socialism mixed with a little capitalism. Mr. Irons went so far as to mock the Four Horsemen for stating that socialism was taking over America. He mocked them not for being paranoid, but for not having a better view of the Constitution. These five justices received the harshest treatment, even though Clarence Thomas gets quite a drubbing himself in this book. Even Jusitce Scalia comes off in a better light, mostly because Scalia ruled the first amendment protected flag burning and thought courts had the right to review the ‘enemy combatant’ label placed on those taken in the War on Terrorism (Thomas was the lone dissenter in that case).

In addition to learning liberals really did not mind socialism, if not outright communism (Mr. Irons gives a great deal of praise to Eugene Dubbs, Communist candidate for President), a rejection of the idea the Constitution is color-blind (reverse discrimination cases made Irons upset), I discovered a real hatred for the South. Not just conservatism, that is expected, but the South as a whole. He openly attacked the South in many off hand comments. He had no problem with Thurgood Marshall calling Southerners “white crackers”. He constantly let the reader know how backward he thought the South’s anti-sodomy laws really were, and had no problem with the 14th Amendment being imposed on the South because they needed it. He seems to have problem with the idea of Reconstruction, but did have a problem with President Hayes ending it. Irons also made it plain he thinks many southern towns still violate the law according to Santa Fe Independent School District v Doe, which outlaws prayer before Friday night football games. The list could go on, but I think you get the idea.