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Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge's View Paperback – September 13, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

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.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (September 13, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307390837
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307390837
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #55,976 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

124 of 131 people found the following review helpful By Ronald H. Clark VINE VOICE on September 21, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a continuation of the dialogue Justice Breyer began in his previous work "Active Liberty." There, he argued that the Court should implement greater participation of citizens in their government. Although he touched at points upon the originalist/literalist approach to interpretation favored by Justices Scalia and Thomas, in his typical polite and reasonable fashion he preferred to explain his approach rather than lob grenades at their dedication to text and originalism. This book too is polite and reasonable, but aims to look at a wider and more fundamental issue--how can the Court contribute to making a "workable democracy" by applying enduring constitutional values to ever-changing circumstances. The short answer in this pragmatic-oriented book, is for the Court to build productive relationships with other governing institutions, as it protects individual rights and searches for the values underlying the Constitution. In short, Breyer is again arguing for what might be termed a greater degree of "judicial modesty" which facilitates better governance.

Breyer first discusses the concept of judicial review, where it came from in Marbury v. Madison, and how history demonstrates (in the Cherokee removal, Dred Scott, and the Little Rock desegregation cases) how dependent the Court is upon ephemeral public support. Breyer is unique in his ability to explain historical and legal concepts in terms that the general reader can assimilate--a rare talent indeed. Basically, Bryer concludes, as long as the Court's opinions are "principled, reasoned, transparent and informative" it will hold public support. Once again, I was disappointed that his discussion of the Bush v.
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36 of 38 people found the following review helpful By G. Scholl on September 24, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I liked this book for many reasons, but two stand out. First, it is an interesting contextualization of the path our country has taken starting out from the basic "idea" of the role of the Supreme Court in the American political system as envisioned by the Founders, to the current manifestation of that role, replete with twists and turns along the way. Second, and very much in the intellectual spirit of his previous book (which I also really liked), it is a reminder that our government is only as good as we, its citizens, are: active, educated and engaged participants allow the engine to function as it should, with the Court serving in its role as, in Justice Breyer's words, the border patrol that makes sure nothing enacted by Congress violates the basic precepts forth by the framers. I enjoyed Justice Breyer's prose style and also found the individual cases he discusses, and his take on them, incredibly interesting in their own right. I would highly recommend this book to anyone, left right and center, who has a pulse and cares about our country ... how a series of ideas set forth a couple hundred years ago are being manifest in contemporary American society. An important book that I suspect history will look on kindly.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Donald F. St Denis on September 27, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
First, I think it's important to state that I don't think Breyer wrote this book to promote a political point of view. Quite the opposite: he shows remarkable restraint and a willingness to try and explain fairly the basis for differing opinions held on important cases.

His reason for writing this book was to educate U.S. citizens how government works and the principles that judges and justices try to follow in deciding cases. He explained his hope that, if we better understand these things, we'll have more confidence in our government and be actively interested in how our government works. Better citizens, in other words.

I'd say that there is one subject that gets Breyer up on his soapbox: he firmly believes that the courts can produce the best results in support of a workable democracy by applying a practical consideration of legislative intent, values, subsidiarity, specialization, appropriate deference to expertise and several other concepts. He makes a pretty good case for this approach. Each additional layer of guiding principles, taken by itself, seems reasonable enough, but when he guides the reader through the balancing act that judges have to go through in selecting and applying the relevant principles in appropriate proportion to a particular case, it really gave me an appreciation for how difficult and complex this can be.

I especially enjoyed his review of a number of landmark cases, including Marbury vs Madison, Dred Scott, Brown vs Board of Education, a couple of cases regarding Japanese internment during WWII and four cases involving Guantanamo detainees. Very informative.

Breyer's writing style is clear, easy to follow, and a pleasure to read. I highly recommend this book.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Andrew M. Bianca on October 6, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Any book by a Supreme Court justice is worth reading, this book is not an exception. The case discussions are at a law school constitutional law class level. In this sense, this part of the book is not new for lawyers, but non-lawyers will find it enlightening.

Where the book excels is the rich detail that surrounds cases. That detail helps to understand what justices who employed the pragmatic approach would have considered.

After reading sections such as the pragmatic approach vs. the originalism approach, I felt the book was incomplete; I needed to get a more complete view. The book's last paragraph suggests that was Justice Breyer's intent when it states "The stories this book sets forth are told from the point of view of one judge", "I hope they lead others to study and ponder their lessons about our constitutional history."

If the book gave a more balanced view, not necessitating further research on my part, I would have given it another star, perhaps I am being too grudging with the 5th star.

Suggestion for reading this book. Look over the appendices first, because:
* The text of the book doesn't mention there are photos in the back.
* The back contains a well written explanation of how the Supreme Court works.
* All the footnotes, really endnotes, are in the back of the book; in legal writing much can be gained by reading the footnotes.
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