Having already published two unrevealing written-down (to middle-school reading level) memoirs, Sandra Day O'Connor, the upbeat and amiable first woman to be a justice on the US Supreme Court (1981-2006) has authored (or at least bylined) another book of "Gee whiz!" stories about customs of court (important things like the order of entering or egressing from the public chambers, wan attempts to show a lighter side of that merry prankster Gilbet-and-Sullivan-fan William Rehnquist, and the dry wit of David Souter). She also provides verbal sketches about some colorful justices and advocates of yore that are less informative than Wikipedia entries. I'm not saying the book was researched on line; there are references to hard-copy publications in the notes. But I suspect a less superficial book than this one could have been derived entirely from Wikipedia.
Though providing a detailed history of the two oaths of office and which justice took which one where, O'Connor provides absolutely no consideration of (let alone any insight) into how the justices reach decisions either in general or the infamous opinions such as Bush v. Gore and Bowers v. Hardwick in which O'Connor was in the bare majorities. She says her aim in writing the book was to "share" information about what happens among Supreme Court justices not "between bangs of the gavel," yet the only discussion of how that body functions in doing its job is a bit on the presentation of oral arguments in the cases (now about 90 a year) that the court hears. Justices of yore sat through lengthy orations by Daniel Webster and other less gifted advocates, but now listen hardly at all, interrupting at will the half hour advocates for each side have to clarify the arguments made in written briefs of no more than 15,000 words. (Briefs for appeals to the court are limited to 9000 words.)
Readers can learn about what grunge duties the most junior member of the court by tradition undertakes, and that each new justice gets to sit in Chief Justice Marshall's chair, and that retired justices (like O'Connor) sometimes sit on lower court cases, but will learn nothing about how law clerks are selected, cases chosen and decided. In being as decorous as it is superficial, the book is misleadingly titled "out of order." The organization of the book is a bit disorderly, but the particularly chapters proceed chronologically (another sense of "in order").
In short, what is interesting about O'Connor as a member of the Supreme Court is nowhere to be found in this book. A better place to find some considerations of that is court journalist Joan Biskypic's 2006 book Sandra Day O'Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice.
Out of Order is far from it. It is a highly structured, superficial and trivial summary of the history of the Supreme Court. It continually returns to the era of George Washington, first to list all the Supreme Court justices named by every president, in order, and then back again to list all the buildings the Supreme Court has ever occupied, from George Washington's administration to the present building, inaugurated during the Depression. Then it's back for a tour of all the variations of the oath of office through the centuries. Later - how justices retire through the ages.
For a major public discourse of the first woman Supreme Court justice, this is a letdown. I was hoping for some sort of insight into the all-male enclave. Instead, we get a history that pretty much anybody with Wikipedia could have written. A high school textbook lovesong to the Supreme Court.
The section on humor is particularly embarrassing. But then, Justice O'Connor owns up to her rating of seventh out of nine in sense of humor. She should not have written that chapter.
This is a badly misnamed book.
The one thing Justice O'Connor could have offered us was the insider's view of the goings on at the Supreme Court Building. Unfortunately, the deepest we get is her revelation that (junior) Justice Kagan has used her position as manager of the cafeteria to introduce yogurt and pretzels to the Supreme Court.
Finally, the book suddenly ends at page 131. That's it. That's all there is, except for a reprinting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which is probably not why you bought this book. In fact, there is no reason to buy this book, as anyone with access to wikipedia could put together the same string of trivia. The great, outlandish characters like Holmes and Douglas get anecdotal treatment well beneath their stature. You can get that from their biographies - but not here.
The Supreme Court deserves better, especially from someone who mentions repeatedly that she was the first woman to serve, and that she served for 25 years. But those two facts do not figure in the book at any point. The result is less than insightful.
on March 7, 2013
The blurb makes this book sound fascinating, at least, if you have any interest in the Supreme Court. "With unparalleled insight and her unique perspective as a history-making figure, Justice O'Connor takes us on a personal exploration.... We get a rare glimpse into the Supreme Court's inner workings: how cases are chosen for hearing; the personal relationships that exist among the Justices; and the customs and traditions, both public and private, that bind one generation of jurists to the next...." Unfortunately, that's just the publishers' wishful thinking; barely a word of what I just quoted is true. Well, except for the public traditions: the book spends a good 11 pages on oath-taking. But "candid" it is decidedly not.
Essentially, Out of Order is a brief (165 pages of text, followed by the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and references) and basic introduction to the U.S. Supreme Court. Its chapters cover topics such as famous clashes between the Court and the presidents; the various buildings in which the Court has been housed; the early tradition of circuit-riding; and biographical sketches of a few famous justices.
Justice O'Connor handily avoids the opportunity to include personal insights, stories or opinions. For instance, the chapter on judicial appointments simply lists presidents, their appointees, and what the people in question are best-known for, without a hint of an opinion on the appointment process or discussion of the author's own confirmation hearings. And rather than providing insight into how the Court chooses which cases to hear, O'Connor simply quotes the relevant Supreme Court Rule. The deepest this book gets into the inner workings of the Court is the description of the Justices' lunches: everyone sits in the chair occupied by their predecessor, and talk about work is not allowed. What they actually do discuss, or how justices with strongly opposed views relate to each other personally, the book doesn't say. But even the lunchtime "insight" is rare; 99% of this book could as easily have been written by someone with no personal knowledge of the Court.
In fairness, I came to this book knowing a lot about the topic already, and while it's clearly mismarketed, it may not be a bad choice for high school civics classes, or for those who just want to gain some basic knowledge about American public institutions. I certainly learned some new trivia, and some of the anecdotes are enjoyable and piqued my interest in lesser-known historical figures: particularly Justice Field (the story of his judging in the Wild West begins with his pointing a gun at a juror, and gets crazier from there) and Belva Lockwood (who successfully lobbied to have women admitted to practice before the Court.... in 1879).
But even for those with little prior knowledge of the Supreme Court, this book would have benefited from either more personal insight, or a greater depth to its treatment of history; as it is, the book focuses on basic information and trivia, provides little explanation or analysis, and fails to elaborate on potentially fascinating stories. While a quick read, it consists mostly of the sort of information available on Wikipedia, and for that reason, sadly, I can't recommend it.
Out of Order is subtitled "Stories from the History of the Supreme Court" and, being written by a former Justice who spent almost 25 years on the Court, I was looking forward to a lively book full of interesting personal anecdotes about life as a Supreme Court justice, both today and in history.
Most of what I found was a dry collection of facts. For example, the chapter Called to Serve, Judicial Appointments, was little more than a list of which presidents appointed which justices, with a very small amount of personal details but a number of extraneous facts, such as the fact that James Polk defeated Henry Clay in 1844, which seems to be related to nothing that is mentioned earlier or later in the book. When opportunities existed to make the chapter interesting, she did not take advantage of it. For example, she mentions that Justice Samuel Chase was impeached for "high crimes and misdemeanors" but does not tell us what these "high crimes and misdemeanors" were. Even the chapter on Supreme Court Firsts, written by a prominent "First" herself, was mostly again a collection of facts, with little background on what events or changes in attitudes brought these firsts about.
The writing is surprisingly unenlightening and sometimes even confusing. For example, she discusses the landmark case of Marbury v Madison. The case occurred during the Jefferson administration, and she never mentions why Madison's name is attached to the case, an obvious question that is likely to occur to any reader who is not already familiar with it. I had to look in Wikipedia to learn that Madison, as Secretary of State, was the official who was supposed to deliver the commissions of the newly appointed judges. There are even errors (possibly corrected before publication, since I read an Advance Reading Copy ), such as the statement that President Lincoln appointed Samuel Chase Chief Justice to replace Chief Justice Chaney, who died in 1864. Lincoln appointed Justice Salmon Chase; Samuel Chase was the Justice who had been impeached more than a half-century earlier.
This is a short book padded with the full text of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution but also including a more interesting number of photos of Supreme Court Justices, Presidents, and related notables such as Belva Lockwood, the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court. The book does not appear to add anything to information that is already widely available about the Court, and it does not seem to have any special insight as a result of Justice O'Connor's own service there
on August 15, 2013
There's no argument that the Supreme Court is a vital American institution. It serves as the third branch of government and keeps the others in check. But for the most part, it is pretty boring. Most people don't pay much attention to the goings-on of the Court unless they are hearing arguments about a major social policy, such as gay marriage or abortion. I admit, I'm one of these people. Even though I love the law and politics and public policy, I don't follow the Supreme Court as diligently as I should. But that may change now that I've read Sandra Day O'Connor's book about her experiences on the bench.
The first female Supreme Court Justice, O'Connor served for 25 years. But unlike most `memoirs' this one is less about O'Connor than about the history of the Supreme Court. When I first started reading, I was expecting her life story - her upbringing, the obstacles she overcame, and her thoughts about her life - so I was a caught off guard when it read more like a history book. But once I readjusted my frame of mind, I loved it.
From the early days to the current system we have in place, O'Connor gives the reader a broad overview of how the Supreme Court arrived at its current destination. She talks about some of the most important justices (beloved like Holmes and hated like McReynolds, whose funeral was not attended by any Justices because he was so horribly racist). She also discusses, at length, the early practice of circuit-riding, when Supreme Court Justices traveled the country to preside over the lower courts (something that maybe some of the current Justices should do in an effort to see all sides of society...)
Filled with fun facts and personal anecdotes, Out of Order is a pleasant and informative read. I recommend it for anyone who has a slight interest in the courts or our government because, despite its history lessons, it's written informally and is much more enjoyable. I will definitely be whipping out some of these fun facts over the next few years.
Although this book is not exciting and entertaining, it lays a great foundation of the history of the Supreme Court and its purposes, which have changed through the years, and the manner in which it operates in this modern era. Since only qualified lawyers are allowed to practice before it, for those lawyers and their employees who never get there, but are curious about the nature, strength and importance of this highest court without taking a special class to acquire these answers, this is a great little book to in a condensed manner explain it.
The book opens explaining how the Supreme Court has no power other than to interpret the law and its conformance to the U.S. Constitution. In the beginning, there were times of controversy between our elected Presidents and the Court. The Presidents believed that since they were elected, they could act as they pleased. The Court was hard pressed to convince them that they could only act as our Constitution allowed them to. For instance President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt that the sitting Justices would destroy his New Deal legislation and presented his Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937 wherein fifteen Justices would sit, which would allow him to pack the Court with his selections. It failed to pass.
During the Korean War, Harry S. Truman, sometimes known as a bull dog because of his stubbornness, was attempting to overcome a strike by the United Steel Workers Union against the steel industries. Thus he was advised by his legal people that the judiciary would probably ignore any actions he took. The Court did take note and said he exceeded his authority since he was attempting to act without the authority of Congress.
The book sets out the many hard years of circuit riding until finally a central court was physically established and the manner of travel and communication became much easier. Where at one time, the lawyers appearing before the court could speak as long as they wished, now since there are so many cases filed before the court that the court must annually select what it will hear, the briefs are limited by size and oral presentation is limited. As to the famous cases before the Court that ruly defined our present and future as a country and people, they are too complex to include in this book and for anyone interested in reading them and attempting to understand the briefs, they can be found individually by students or attorneys.
I felt that this book explained the basic workings of the United States Supreme court and if it didn't reveal as much as what some readers desired, Justice O'Connor is a serious and dedicated judge and would not denigrate the Court or the Judges by gossip or revealing personalities. As a former paralegal who at one time wondered about the workings of this highest Court, I felt it answered many questions and I recommend it for those who quickly want information in this area of the law of our land.
I liked OUT OF ORDER, Stories From The History of The Supreme Court by Sandra Day O'Connor. An interesting light read about the history of the Supreme Court. BUT, and a big but...it was over simpilfied and oh so basic. Parts could have been a great history lesson to high schoolers but for the most part it did not shine. I guess I was expecting insights and tidbits from behind closed doors. That was not there at all. A simple easy read but get it and read it for that. Meaty issues and secret happening and insights are, I guess, for another book.
At one time, I felt that I understood the purpose of the Supreme Court and the manner in which it operated. I did not think that I knew those things at the same level as individuals in the legal profession, but good enough for the `regular' citizen of the United States. Then I read The Majesty of the Law by Justice O'Connor and learned that I knew nothing. Well, no quite "nothing" but less than I, as a citizen should have known.
Now, smug in my pompous knowledge of the ins and outs of the Supreme Court, I picked up Out of Order by that same Justice O'Connor and find that my vast knowledge of the Supreme Court is amazingly lacking.
In high school Civics classes (do they still have those?) these two books should be required reading. The workings and the Supreme Court are far more interesting than I previously thought. This is not just a `super' court which does the same sort of stuff as my local magistrate's court, but it is the Referee or Umpire for the whole Judicial System. But this newer book tells me that it was not always like that. The framers of the United States Constitution had no idea of what the Supreme Court should be nor how it should operate. Unlike the other branches of government that had their initial blueprint handed to them, the Supreme Court had to start with an undeveloped ideal and started evolving into what we have today. I assume that the evolution is not yet complete. Time will tell.
Justice O'Connor has an amazing talent to present the history of the court in words that a clueless citizen such as I am will be able to comprehend the wonderful system that has developed into the Supreme Court. The wonder of the court, when comparing it with the other two branches of the government is that it operates uninvolved with political considerations and independent of the influences of the news media.
Thank you Justice O'Connor for these books. Maybe now I am a bit more of what a `regular' citizen of the United States should be.
on April 15, 2013
I really wanted to like this book. I am a huge supreme court follower and have admired Justice O'Connor ever since she was appointed over 30 years ago. Before reading this book, I heard Justice O'Connor interviewed by Terri Gross on 'Fresh Air' on NPR, and it excited me about the book. Sadly, the book does not live up to all the hype one would expect when any sitting or former Supreme Court justice picks up the pen.
The book is very superficial in its coverage of the different stories that Justice O'Connor describes. There is very little depth to the book, and I often found myself wanting to know more about what I was reading. Particularly disappointing was the chapter entitled "The Call To Serve" which essentially describes every president and who he nominated to the Supreme Court, but not in any significant detail. Towards the end, Justice O'Connor talks about 4 unique and memorable justices - Justices Field, Holmes, McReynolds and Douglas - but the treatment is so superficial that one feels the need to go and read more about these distinguished men in order to really understand what they were about.
There are some bright spots to the book. The chapter entitled "Itinerant Justice" is fascinating in its coverage of when justices were required to ride circuit. The two latter chapters "Customs and Traditions of the Supreme Court" and "Some Laughs on the Bench" also are quite interesting. Overall, these few bright spots are again marred by the superficial coverage given to the topics in them by the author.
What makes me sad about this book is that it could have been so much better. There are numerous fascinating books out there about the Supreme Court - Peter Irons' "A People's History of the Supreme Court" comes to mind - and this one could have been among the ranks. But, unfortunately, it tries to cover too many things in too superficial a fashion, and as a result, doesn't really break new ground at all.
For the Supreme Court lover, this one is nice to have to keep on the bookshelves with all the others. For others, it might be worth passing on this book and read one of Justice O'Connor's other excellent books.
I greatly respect former Supreme Court associate justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The first woman appointed to the Court in 1981 (and now there are three!), she served with distinction for twenty-five years and gained a reputation as the swing vote in many crucial decisions. She was the justice advocates thought most likely actually to listen to their arguments and to take them into account in reaching her decisions. She has been an admirable and strong justice.
In retirement, one of the projects she has taken up has been civics education. (See her website:[...]) Perhaps that was the inspiration for this book which traces the history of the Supreme Court since its founding till today and includes chapters on representative justices ("Larger Than Life Justices" -Field, Holmes, the bigoted and abrasive McReynolds, and Douglas), Court traditions, Supreme Court "firsts" (a particularly anemic chapter), and even one on the Justices' sense of humor. Perhaps --but the book would have fulfilled the purpose of civics education better if it were not so pallid.
I wish the book was better, or even acceptable but it isn't. Justice O'Connor hedges too often, cutting off the discussion just when it reaches points needing elaboration and avoiding intruding her own point of view, even on issues that are past now. Her discretion is admirable in an age where commentators on left and right seem to think it their badge of courage to divulge all, with no concern for whom it hurts. But she is too reticent, and as a consequence, misses the chance to make a telling civics lesson about our most important judicial institution, but one whose decisions have, time and time again, been affected for good or for worse by the time times in which they were reached and the men (it was always men until Justice O'Connor joined the bench) who made them. Some chapters seem little more than strings of facts -this happened, and then this, etc., etc. Others are curiously trivial and pallid for a book by someone with the depth and breadth of experience on the Court that Ms. O'Connor has had: it is difficult to conceive of a more useless and trivial chapter than "Some Laughs on the Bench," which, if it has a message at all is that the Justices had all better keep their day job because they're not going to make it as standup comics.
I had hoped for more muscle in the analysis and a trace more vinegar in her commentary. But what she has produced is simply sleep-inducing. I'm not saying there is nothing worth reading in her, only that there is too little of it and that shouldn't have happened, not with a woman of her stature and record.