From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Justice Breyer (Active Liberty) looks at how the Supreme Court evolved historically and defined its role largely in relation to the willingness of the public to embrace its decisions. Readers may be surprised to learn that in many democracies, parliaments are not bound to accept decisions by their court; similarly, the U.S. Constitution doesn't give the Supreme Court final say. Breyer tells the story of President Jackson's grudging acceptance of a Court decision protecting the treaty rights of the Cherokee nation, only to seize their land using Federal troops. In the Dred Scott decision, the pro-slavery Court violated the right of Free states to outlaw slavery. And in Brown vs. the Kansas Board of Education, President Eisenhower used the Army to back up Court decisions against segregated education. Breyer discusses recent Court decisions in favor of rights for Guantanamo detainees and examines the limitations of a President's power as Commander-in-Chief, even in wartime, contrasting this to the failure of the Court, Congress, and President Roosevelt over internment camps during WWII. An accomplished writer, Justice Breyer's absorbing stories offer insight into how a democracy works, and sometimes fails. (Sept.)
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Justice Breyer was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1994 (and, of course, he serves for life, as mandated by the Constitution). His book partners well with Jeffrey Toobin’s well-received The Nine (2007), which is an account of the politics and personalities of the current Supreme Court. Breyer projects a larger context, supplying both historical and judicial background to give the nonspecialist a generalized picture of how the Supreme Court works. He explains the Court’s role in ensuring a workable democracy, in guaranteeing that the Constitution works in practice and in the real world. Certainly an interesting aspect of this greatly informative book is Breyer’s look back over the history of the republic to see how the public—and even the U.S. president—has accepted Court decisions. (It is not readily imaginable, to be sure, but, nevertheless, it is dramatically illustrated here that such acceptance was a principle that was not easy to plant within social and political consciousnesses.) Breyer is emphatic that “at the end of the day, the public’s confidence is what permits the Court to ensure a Constitution that is more than words on paper.” A book for all citizens. --Brad Hooper