The Supremes

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

When I first heard of this book, my initial impression was that it would be dull. This displays my occasional utter idiocy, because what book with the word “secret” in its subtitle is ever dull? I should have suspected it would be titillating!

Well, this book is neither dull nor titillating. It’s better than that: it’s compelling.

Toobin’s great gift is in humanizing the justices. He provides details about the way they interact with each other (which is surprisingly minimal) and with their clerks, about their background, and about their interests (opera, Salzburg, NASCAR, etc.) He shares information about which justices are congenial, combative, reclusive, or sunny in disposition. (How can a person not be wildly fond of a sunny justice? I mean, honestly!)

And, having recently quit a book that failed at this next bit, I can truly appreciate Toobin’s approach to introducing the justices to the reader: he weaves their individual stories into the narrative about the final years of the Rehnquist court (the latter years of which he claims were actually the O’Connor court, in terms of influence) and the first year or so of the Roberts court. None of that simple, lazy method of devoting a chapter to each person, thank all goodness. The result is a richer, more complex and rewarding book for the reader, and I am thankful for it.

Here’s my favorite anecdote of the book, and I think it’s perfectly lovely. Apparently people have often confused David Souter and Stephen Breyer. In one instance, Souter was driving home to New Hampshire from Washington, and he was recognized in a restaurant by a couple who approached him and addressed him as Justice Breyer. Being a kindly sort of person, Souter nodded and continued the brief conversation, which included this question: “’Justice Breyer, what’s the best thing about being on the Supreme Court?’ The justice thought for a while, then said, ‘Well, I’d have to say it’s the privilege of serving with David Souter.’” (p. 246) I love this!

Snap quiz: Can you name all nine justices?* If so, buy yourself a giganto treat from the DQ: you deserve it, dagnabbit.

I really should have read this book before visiting the Supreme Court during oral arguments (which is one doggone fascinating thing to do; I highly recommend it. I was darn near stunned when they appeared from behind that curtain; there was a moment of, “Is that really them?” and it was then that I realized just how much of a dork I really am. Starstruck by the Supremes.)

So at least now I’ve read it, so on my next visit, I’ll be cleverer. And, yes, I’ll admit it: I’ll be even more agog than before.

*Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Roberts, Alito, Sotomayor

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