A Year in the Life of the Supreme Court.
Reviewed by Sheldon M. Novick
A year in the Life of the Supreme Court is an interesting collection of stories of important recent Supreme Court cases. Written by several newspaper reporters and one law professor, it recounts the process by which a dispute arises, is framed by litigation strategy, and is ultimately decided by the Court.
The center of each story is the hour of oral argument before the Supreme Court in several cases decided between early 1992 and June 1993. That hour, during which all the key players are present, is presented as a vivid embodiment of the whole complex proceeding that a legal dispute is. Brief portraits of the litigants, their lawyers, and the justices are given, and with somewhat less consistency and success, the political context of the cases is sketched. In each account, the adversary process and the somewhat adversarial deliberations of the Court converge to produce a decision.
The authors do not provide an "insider's" view of the Court. The accounts are based on public records, so far as one can tell--there are no footnotes. The authors show that the Court's deliberations are affected by the political contexts of cases and the relationships of the justices, as well as by the record in the cases.
The period chosen for study was an interesting one for the Court. The arrival of Justice Clarence Thomas allowed the Court to hear a number of unusually important cases that had been awaiting review by a full Court.
The book includes several capsule portraits of Justice Thomas and his confirmation hearings, but as Thomas did not say a word during the oral arguments that are the centerpiece of each story and wrote none of the opinions, the emphasis on his personality and history seems misplaced.
The descriptions of the other justices are cursory and tend toward the cliches of daily journalism--for example, everyone must be either a conservative or a liberal. Details are chosen for vividness rather than illumination.
The editor chose only cases that arose under the Bill of Rights, but he never explains this. Consequently, the general public, at whom the book is directed, could easily get the impression that these cases are all that the Court hears.
The epochal abortion case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey ( 114 S. Ct. 909 (1992)), certainly the most important case of the year, whether viewed politically or in terms of constitutional doctrine, is mysteriously omitted. (Casey is mentioned only as footnote to the controversy over freedom of expression for abortion protesters.) The omission takes the heart out of a cumulative description of the Court's deliberations, for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's role is completely lost.
A Fourth Amendment case is set out at tiresome length, perhaps to show, how technical and unreal the rules of law in this realm have become. Several First Amendment cases are also given extensive treatment.
But for my money, the best and most interesting account is Marcia Coyle's "A Question of Innocence," concerning Herrera v. Collins. (506 U.S. 390 (1993).) In that case, the Court refused to grant a writ of habeas corpus to a condemned prisoner who had produced belated evidence of his innocence.
An interesting final chapter reviews the "case" of recent disclosures of the Court's deliberations--the opening of the Marshall papers and Peter Irons's release of some edited audiotapes of oral arguments in old cases. This last chapter, by Tony Mauro, is a diatribe against the Court's "cult of secrecy," to which Professor Smolla offers a rebuttal on behalf of the Court (the prohibition of television cameras may explain why the Court is the only remaining deliberative branch of government).
I like the book well enough to wish it were better. The reporters who contributed most of the articles do not rise above the press's own self-interest in First Amendment cases, and the prose is workmanlike but routine.
However, these defects are common to collective works of this type. Unless Professor Smolla's admirable concept is brought more fully to life by a single author, this will remain one of the very best books available on the Supreme Court for legal scholars and the general public alike.
Sheldon M. Novick is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont.
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|Author:||Novick, Sheldon M.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||May 1, 1996|
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