Supreme Conflict
Jan Crawford Greenburg
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Buy *Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court* by Jan Crawford Greenburg online

Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court
Jan Crawford Greenburg
The Penguin Press
368 pages
January 2007
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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There is no gainsaying the fact that the Supreme Court and its seemingly inscrutable activities have begun to interest Americans in a way that would have been difficult to fathom even four decades ago. In particular, ever since the Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing a woman’s right to abortion, lobbyists, academics, journalists, and specifically politicians have all come to recognize the tremendous impact of Supreme Court decisions on the practical lives of Americans. How does the Supreme Court discharge its various duties? How do the personalities and the quirks of the individual justices affect the eventual decisions that are announced by the Supreme Court? How have elected Presidents attempted to shape the future course of the Supreme Court? These sorts of questions are interestingly discussed by the author in this book.

Jan Crawford Greenburg begins by chronicling the ascent of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court in 1981. As the Court’s first female justice, O’Connor distinctly felt the proverbial spotlight’s glare. The combination of this glare and her relative inexperience with complex cases concerning the minutiae of constitutional law made her early days in the Court somewhat traumatic. Even so, in her first few terms on the Court, O’Connor behaved the way a President Reagan appointee would be expected to behave - i.e., she voted with the conservative Chief Justice Rehnquist more than 80 percent of the time. As the author rightly points out, this predictability in her decision-making would change with the subsequent arrival of the acutely conservative Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

In the post-1973 era, conservatives realized that judicial appointments to the Supreme Court could be used to effectively alter the status quo with regard to social issues in general and abortion in particular. Similarly, liberals recognized that these same judicial appointments could also be used to preserve the social status quo. Therefore, the judicial philosophies of actual and potential occupants of the Supreme Court became a matter of great interest to lobbyists and politicians in general and to elected Presidents in particular. This is why conservatives were deeply disappointed with the appointments of Anthony Kennedy and David Souter to the Supreme Court. For starters, these two justices were not “strict constructionists.” In addition, Kennedy had an unacceptable predilection for veering to the left in salient cases and, despite being a President George H.W. Bush appointee, Souter was less conservative and more liberal in his judicial opinions. All this is well discussed by the author here.

The retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor and the demise of Chief Justice Rehnquist in 2005 gave President George W. Bush the opportunity to force the Court to make a sharp turn to the right. Did he succeed? The author tells us, sometimes in gory detail, that he did. She then goes on to claim that with the arrival of John Roberts and Sam Alito, the Supreme Court will be able to predictably shape the direction of American law and culture well into the future. This is a contestable claim. In fact, the author’s own analysis of previous situations in which conservatives erroneously believed that they would be able to alter the course of the Supreme Court and her references to Chief Justice Rehnquist’s explanations for the frequent failure of Presidents to transform the Supreme Court together suggest that a more equivocal claim is called for.

In some ways, this book complements the recent but more historical book The Supreme Court by Jeffrey Rosen. In addition, this book is thoroughly researched and provides a lot of interesting tidbits about the lives of the individual justices and the nomination process for Supreme Court justices. Even so, it contains a fair amount of repetition and is generally long on description and occasionally short on analysis. Therefore, readers interested in a scholarly account of the workings of the Supreme Court are likely to be disappointed with the contents of this book. In contrast, readers interested in a chatty, fast-paced, and generally engaging account of the political dynamics of the Supreme Court will profit be perusing Supreme Conflict.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Amitrajeet A. Batabyal, 2007

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