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A People's History of the Supreme Court Hardcover – August 1, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The savvy, chatty author of The Courage of Their Convictions brings us a scholarly reckoning of the 200-plus years of decisions made by the highest court in the land. Not surprisingly (and justifiably, given his erudite arguments), Peter H. Irons represents the court's work as a never-ending appeal of the powerless to the powerful: of the just over 100 supreme justices who have sat on the court, all but two have been white, all but two have been men, and all but seven have been Christian, whereas the supplicants to our nation's highest bar are typically racial minorities, women, and deviants in some way from the religious and social mainstream.

Taking a representative (if not comprehensive) accounting of the Supreme Court's most significant decisions, Irons puts cultural and political context--and a human face--to the parties involved, painting an absorbing and involving picture of landmark cases that readers are likely to recall but not fully understand. Whether he's explicating the tortuous history of freedom-seeking slave Dred Scott or explaining the "a Jap's a Jap" reasoning behind the legal exculpation of World War II internment camps, Irons reminds us of the court's spotted history while still conveying the deep affection he has for it. (Includes a thoughtful appendix with the complete text of the Constitution and suggestions for further reading.) --Paul Hughes

From Publishers Weekly

Presenting a sophisticated narrative history of the Supreme Court, Irons (The Courage of Their Convictions, etc.) illustrates the beguiling legacy left by the Constitution's framers, who conjured up the high Court without providing an instruction manual. Irons is clear about where his ideological sympathy lies, calling Justice William Brennan "my judicial ideal and inspiration" and quoting Brennan's famous formulation that "the genius of the Constitution" rests in "the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs." Irons traces the development of the Court's peculiar institutional workings from its first proceedings under Chief Justice John Jay to the struggle for individual liberties during the successive Warren, Burger and Rehnquist Courts. In characterizing the Court as a bastion of racism, classism and sexism prior to Earl Warren's ascendancy, he often tends to use extended arguments when quick jabs would suffice. But as he delves into the personalities of litigants, justices and senators (who, as far back as 1831, fought fiercely over the confirmations of Supreme Court nominees), Irons proves himself a master of American legal and political history. He is particularly lucid when recounting how Reconstruction reforms, such as the Fourteenth Amendment, that were intended to ensure the liberties of individuals were co-opted by the Gilded Age Court to protect the liberties of business. Irons combines careful research with a populist passion. In doing so, he breathes abundant life into old documents and reminds readers that today's fiercest arguments about rights are the continuation of the endless American conversation. BOMC selection. (Aug.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (August 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670870064
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670870066
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #132,165 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

88 of 101 people found the following review helpful By Adam Shah on December 30, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I am struggling with my reactions to this book. I have several serious criticisms of the book, but I think many things were well done. Let me first list the positives and then all the negatives.
A People's History of the Supreme Court gives a brief biography of every justice who has ever served on the Supreme Court and interwoven with this, gives a description of some of the most important cases the Supreme Court has decided. In the case descriptions, the author explains, in plain language, the legal issues involved (I think it's plain language, but I'm a lawyer, and law school is very good at teaching lawyers not to speak or understand plain language). He also often describes the history of the legal issue, why it was important to the nation, what the country thought of the legal issue at the time. Finally, he gives a brief story of the actual case itself--who the parties were, why they decided to file the suit, why they appealed their case all the way to the Supreme Court, etc.
This is all very important stuff. It is great to have it all collected into one book. Too often, we don't know anything about the people who bring their cases to the Supreme Court but merely know their names. It is important to remember that the cases involved real people with real disputes or heartfelt issues that they wanted the court to resolve.
We also know almost nothing about the Supreme Court justices who preceded this one. But they are, in many ways, as powerful or more powerful than the Presidents. They had real-world experience before becoming judges and sometimes cast aside that experience, but sometimes didn't.
I found the book extremely interesting and read it quickly from cover to cover.
But the book had many flaws: there are factual errors.
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35 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Richard L. Goldfarb on October 22, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Irons has put together a useful and well-written history of the Supreme Court from its genesis in the Constitutional Convention to the present. His short profiles of each justice and his (or her) contribution are particularly helpful. He also does a great job of bringing to life many of the individual litigants who came before the court, putting faces on the names from the past. Unfortunately, in history itself he seems to have lost his way. One will find laughers like that Lincoln dismissed McClellan after the disastrous defeat at Antietam in Virginia that a sixth grader wouldn't make (it was in Maryland, it was at least a tactical victory and Lincoln kept McClellan for another two months). He places too much emphasis on black-white relations, which while important were not the only thing the Supreme Court did in the nineteenth century. Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, the trail of tears case, is nowhere present, even though it led to the largest confrontation between the power of a president and of the court in our history. In the context of their times, the cases in which the court struck down the civil war income tax and dealt with the constitutionality of greenbacks were also important, but are barely touched on. He starts well, with good descriptions of Charles River Bridge and Gibbons v. Ogden; I wish he'd continued as comprehensively.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By S. T. Sullivan on February 2, 2008
Format: Paperback
Don't kid yourself into thinking that this is a disinterested history of the Supreme Court of the United States. It isn't, it is a highly politicized look at the history of the cases heard before the highest court in the land, with a special emphasis on the cases that dealt directly with individual rights. The Dred Scott decision, which reinforced the slavery and Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion both get a lot of play in this book. As do lesser known cases involving the internment of American's of Japanese decent, and early cases involving slavery issues such as the little known Antelope case.

It's a well written book, full of telling details about not only the justices who heard these cases, but also the people behind the case names. We learn what Earl Warren, the Chief Justice during some of the most important years in the court's history was like as a person. But we also learn about Earl Gideon, the man whose case created the right to an attorney for anyone arrested for a crime.

Still, while I appreciate the need for a progressive history of the Supreme Court, I wish Iron's had played down his politics a little more. A more evenhanded approach that did not disparage everyone who does not share Iron's politics would have made for a better, and more convincing book.
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23 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Ricky Hunter on October 8, 2000
Format: Paperback
Peter Iron's book, A People's History of the Supreme Court, was a joy to read through all the many hours I was engrossed in this immense book. He puts his ideological cards on the table in the introduction and then, if you have any spark of liberal spirit inside you, you go along for the ride as Irons takes the reader through over two hundred years of siginificant cases of the Supreme Court. The great pleasure of this book is that it also allows the reader to see the personalities of both the court and the petitioners before the court. Dred Scott becomes more than the name of the decision. It is fascinating, too, how politics and legal decisions are weaved together in this epic book as they are in the actual decisions themselves. It was a wonderful book that demonstrated that the Constitution is for the people and the story of the Constitution is the story of the people.
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