Review: The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court, Revised and Updated
William H. Rehnquist
New York: Vintage Books, 2001

Review Copyright © 2004 Garret Wilson — 15 February 2004 1:53pm

William Rehnquist, currently Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, has provided the Court's history to the presend day in his book, The Supreme Court. This history is less than gripping. Rehnquist starts with a flashback to the day he started clerking for then Justice Jackson in 1952:

It was a highly prized position; I was surprised to have been chosen for it, and I certainly did not want to be late. … From the looks of the sky to the southeast, I appeared to be headeding into a storm. … An hour or so later … it was snowing hard. … I held my speed down, which wasn't hard to do in the Studebaker. … [T]he skies began to brighten and the snow stopped. … [T]he sun emerged from behind the clouds, and I had the feeling that it was personally welcoming me to the Nation's Capital. (3-5)

After this brief climax, Justice Rehnquist settles into telling the highlights of the Court's 200-some-year-old history. Any excitement present at the beginning never returns. Many of the synopses are interesting, including a mediocre but adequate analysis of Marbury v. Madison and the story of President Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing plan. But even the major points are quickly forgettable. Justice Rehnquist has fashioned together what could serve as nice introductions to significant eras of the Supreme Court's history; as a story on their own they appear listless.

Justice Rehnquist fails miserably in his attempts to inject life into the story by bringing in anecdotes from his own experiences. For instance, Rehnquist tells of boarding with another family during his clerkship for Justice Jackson. "The lady of the house who showed me the apartment was a pleasant, middle-aged woman, and since the apartment met my principal wants I took it." (177). He then follows up with a personal anecdote about which he apparently thinks that, just because it is related to the subject, it must be interesting. In this case, the lady's husband had heard of both Justice Jackson and Justice Frankfurter. The husband believed Frankfurter had Communist leanings, but Rehnquist disputed this. "My landlord looked at me somewhat doubtfully, his expression suggesting not so much that I was trying to put something over on him, as that someone else, perhaps Frankfurter, had put something over on me. He looked totally unconvinced by what I told him." (178). With this less-than-climactic ending, Justice Rehnquist finishes this personal detour and drives immediately back to the long stretch of nondescript highway which is The Supreme Court.

In another of Justice Rehnquist's anecdotes, again while clerking for Jackson, one of his friends, having just met Rehnquist's boss, immediately asked a question and started a dispute with Justice Jacksong. "I was almost ready to hide my head under my desk in embarrassment, but Jackson did not seem to find the question at all embarrassing. He proceeded with a very reasoned, often eloquent, defense of [the case in question]." (181). In other words, a friend asks a question of boss and the employee gets embarrassed—this story is unsurprising, uninteresting, and nigh pointless.

At times The Supreme Court seems as much about Justice Rehnquist as it does the Supreme Court. Rehnquist does acknowledge, in 10 one-paragraph descriptions, 10 members with which he has served at the Supreme Court. (225-229). He then launches into over a page of text explaining why he chose not to take over Justice Stewart's chambers when the latter retired. In short, it seems Rehnquist liked the view better in his old chambers. After becoming chief justice, though, he moved to the traditional chambers of the chief justice, and consequently arrived on time more often to sessions of the Court, because the new chambers were closer to the conference room. (230). This story is relevant to Justice Rehnquist. It is questionable whether it is relevant to the Supreme Court.

Justice Rehnquist is undoubtedly a wise man who has seen much during his stay on the Court. One would be wise not to lightly dismiss his experiences. As one example, Rehnquist's categorization of lawyers who argue before the Court is useful, dividing attitudes and arguing techniques into different classes such as "lector," "debating champion," "Casey Jones," and "spellbinder." (245-248).

On the other hand, Rehnquist's recital of Supreme Court/Rehnquist is lacking—or perhaps more precisely, has lost—a certain vitality. When he first arrived on the Court, Rehnquist "felt then that it would be desirable to have more of a round-table discussion of the matter after each of us had expressed our ideas" before finally deciding on a case. His next comment is probably more telling than he intends: "Having now sat in conference for nearly three decades, and having risen from ninth to first in seniority, I realize—with newfound clarity—that my idea as a junior justice, while fine in the abstract, probably would not have contributed much in practice, and at any rate was doomed by the seniority system to which the senior justices naturally adhere." (255). In his many years at the Court, to paraphrase his words, a certain spark has been lost. Although he tries to bring forth a flicker in his telling of its history, Rehnquist's Supreme Court never really shines.