Book Review of The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court

The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court
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Although "The Brethren" was written a quarter of a century ago and it covers the Supreme Court sessions from 1969 to 1975, there are two reasons to hunt down a used copy of this book and read it today. The first is its examination of the important Court decisions of Warren Burger's early years, all of which still reverberate with their controversy and implications. The second is to learn how, in spite of its famously left-of-center decisions, the Court began taking a sharp turn to the ideological right, spurred by the appointment of Burger and by the ascent of the young William Rehnquist.

"The Brethren" gave the Burger Court a reputation from which it never quite recovered. Although the Supreme Court has historically had its share of in-fighting, incompetence, and inanity, its internal meltdowns in the 1970s were occasionally beyond the pale. Woodward and Armstrong portray Burger as a well-meaning but ultimately misguided man obsessed by the legacy of Earl Warren, concerned far more with image than with principle, unskilled in management techniques that would have helped bring the Court to a consensus, and unashamed of his repeated attempts to assign the Court's decisions in a fashion insured to thwart the will of the majority. Even today, most historians, regardless of ideological bent, view the Burger years as a mediocre and often inconsistent transition between the liberal Warren Court and the conservative Rehnquist Court.

It's not a perfect book, by any means. Woodward and Armstrong are at their page-turning best when they examine in detail some of the more famous decisions and controversies faced by the Court (busing, obscenity, abortion, the death penalty, and--especially--Watergate). And the account is surprisingly balanced: anyone expecting a "liberal" flogging of an increasingly conservative court will be surprised, on the one hand, by the authors' depictions of the increasingly unfit and ornery Douglas and the unsophisticated yet affable Marshall and, on the other hand, by their open admiration of Rehnquist, who comes across as (by far) the most likeable and amiable of the justices. Nevertheless, their account is a bit too heavy on office gossip. True--this journalistic style brings the fourteen justices who served during these years to life, but what's lacking is the necessary detailed legal background that would make sense of the Court's day-to-day work rather than its scandalous backbiting and personality conflicts. Overall, though, it's an admirable piece of journalism that makes the Court seem as human as it really is.