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November 26, 2010

Rohit Reviews: The Nine

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

When I moved to New York several weeks ago, I decided to impose a moratorium on the purchase of new books. With my bookshelves weighed down with unread (or worse, half completed) books acquired during the harsh winter of law school, I saw no point in foolishly adding to this pile. Last night, I made some headway in eliminating this backlog, finishing Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. My review follows after the jump.

By a weird twist of fate, I picked up this book about three years ago, shortly before leaving California (and starting law school) and am finishing it only a few months after graduating. Of course, in those three years, my entire perspective on law as well as the Supreme Court was dramatically altered, and as such, my thoughts on the book today are probably very different than had I written this review at the time I actually started the book. But before delving into my quibbles, I will start with what I liked.

First and foremost, Mr. Toobin is a gifted writer and the book proceeds much as do his regular pieces for The New Yorker—at a rapid and seemingly effortless pace. For instance, I was about a hundred pages in when the malaise of 1L forced me to abandon unassigned reading, and pounded through the remaining 240 pages in less than two days this week (after work, no less).

Second, the book is filled with fascinating stories and anecdotes that very much humanize figures that often may resist such treatment; Supreme Court Justices, after all, do not have the reputation as the most exciting people. For those wretched saps such as me, moreover, who had the great misfortune of spending their mid twenties reading page after unending page of prose courtesy of those ladies and gentlemen, I think learning of the Justices as men and women, rather than a conglomeration of their collective works on the bench will be especially rewarding.

Finally, from all indications, this book is a comprehensive account of the major controversial constitutional decisions in the past two decades or so, though definitely dumbed down for the public. That last part, by the way, is definitely a positive: if I wanted a detailed legal survey of the same decisions, I'd just go to a law review article (and then, possibly, kill myself rather than power through the inevitable hackery that would follow).

So what's wrong with this book? Well, to start with, I found the frame Mr. Toobin chose to set the book to be lacking in both nuance and sophistication. From almost the first page, Justice O'Connor is the heroine of the story, fighting back both the lib'rul crazies and the evil, doctrinaire conservatives, through much needed pragmatism and political savvy. While that's certainly one way took look at the Supreme Court's jurisprudence over the past quarter century, I would hardly call it the most accurate (or even useful) way.

More annoying than the frame is the theme of the book: goodhearted, well-intentioned moderates—like Justices O'Connor and Breyer—being vanquished by an evil cadre of Bible-thumping, frothing fringe conservatives hellbent (as it were) on taking control of the Court to finally slay their bête noire—Roe v Wade. One can almost hear The Imperial March as Bush and company appear on stage in Part Three. Although this is undoubtedly a convenient story for my unthinking knee-jerk homies (I use the term loosely) out in San Francisco and Berkeley, it reflects the same logic as the death panel brouhaha of last year—very little, that is. Having read every one of the opinions mentioned in the book in substantial part (like most things, I went big with constitutional law in law school), I know the real story is considerably more complicated, and I would have loved to see the author engage it with more nuance.

Where does that leave me with regard to rating, then? Normally, the unchecked bias of this endeavor would have made me drop my rating, but like I said, the anecdotes are really quite interesting. This one in particular made me laugh out loud (sitting alone and on the ground in dim light, of course):

Over the years, practically everyone Souter knew in Washington, including First Lady Barbara Bush, tried to fix him up. None succeeded. One of his fellow justices once prevailed on Souter to take a woman out to dinner, and she reported back that she thought the evening had gone very well—until the end. Souter took her home, told her what a good time he had, then added: Let's do this again next year.

I really hope I can use that line some day. Three stars of five.


I read the book before law school (or 1L year, I can't remember), and the Souter anecdote stuck with me. The main thing the book has to offer is interviews with the Justices. They don't give many, and for whatever reason, blessed Toobin with them.

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