After an introductory prologue, Toobin begins in 1980 with President Reagan’s election and writes in great detail about each of the Justices, their backgrounds and personalities and how they were nominated and confirmed (something that has become much more difficult in recent years). As he moves through the years chronologically, he also describes some of the most significant and controversial cases tried by the Supreme Court, with an inside view into how the cases were decided.
It’s this inside view that makes Toobin’s book so fascinating. He strips away the awe of the Court and shows readers what the justices are like, as real people, not just judges. Although later chapters go into much greater detail, here’s a small glimpse into this insider’s view from the prologue, as Toobin describes each Justice standing on the steps of the Court during Chief Justice Rehnquist’s funeral in 2005:
The casket first passed Stephen G. Breyer, appointed in 1994 by President Bill Clinton. Such ceremonial duty ill suited Breyer, who still had the gregarious good nature of a Capitol Hill insider rather than the grim circumspection of a stereotypical judge. He had just turned sixty-seven but looked a decade younger, with his bald head nicely tanned by long bike rides and bird-watching expeditions. Few justices had ever taken to the job with more enthusiasm or enjoyed it more.
Breyer’s twitchy exuberance posed a contrast to the demeanor of his fellow Clinton nominee, from 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, standing three steps above him. At seventy-two, she was tiny and frail – she clasped Breyer’s arm on the way down. Elegantly and expensively turned out as usual, on this day in widow’s weeds, she was genuinely bereft to see Rehnquist go. Their backgrounds and politics could scarcely have differed more – the Lutheran conservative from the Milwaukee suburbs and the Jewish liberal from Brooklyn – but they shared a love of legal procedure. Always a shy outsider, Ginsburg knew that the chief’s death would send her even farther from the Court’s mainstream.
While I was at least vaguely familiar with some of the critical events and cases discussed in the book, I was fascinated to learn what went on behind the scenes. Of particular interest were the groundbreaking cases on issues like civil rights, abortion, and separation of church and state. Toobin also covers the inside view of the contested 2000 election in great detail, as well as recent selections of justices and their often controversial confirmation processes. All of this was particularly relevant to read right now, in the midst of the selection of a new justice to replace Souter. It’s enlightening to learn what goes on behind the scenes.