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Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices Hardcover – November 8, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

As a conservative Supreme Court flexes its muscles against a Democratic president for the first time since the New Deal, a series of recent books has explored the constitutional battles of the Roosevelt era and their contemporary relevance. Harvard law professor Feldman's Scorpions focuses more on the battles of the 1940s and 1950s, and it is distinguished by its thesis that the "distinctive constitutional theories" of Roosevelt's four greatest justices, all of whom began as New Deal liberals--Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert Jackson--have continued to "cover the whole field of constitutional thought" up to the present day. Feldman argues that Black, the liberal originalist; Douglas, the activist libertarian; Frankfurter, the advocate of strenuous judicial deference; and Jackson, the pragmatist; achieved greatness by developing four unique constitutional approaches, which reflected their own personalities and worldviews, although they were able to converge on common ground in Brown v. Board of Education, which Feldman calls the last and greatest act of the Roosevelt Court. The pleasure of this book comes from Feldman's skill as a narrator of intellectual history. With confidence and an eye for telling details, he relates the story of the backstage deliberations that contributed to the landmark decisions of the Roosevelt Court, including not only Brown but also cases involving the internment of Japanese-Americans, the trial of the German saboteurs, and President Truman's seizure of the steel mills to avoid a strike. Combining the critical judgments of a legal scholar with political and narrative insight, Feldman is especially good in describing how the clashing personalities and philosophies of his four protagonists were reflected in their negotiations and final opinions; his concise accounts of Brown and the steel seizure case, for example, are memorable. And he describes how the rivalries and personality clashes among the four liberal allies eventually drove them apart: Hugo Black's determination to take revenge on those who offended his Southern sense of honor led him to retaliate not only against Jackson and Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone but also against the racist Southerners who had disclosed his former Ku Klux Klan membership to the press. Not all readers will be convinced by Feldman's thesis that the judicial philosophies of the Roosevelt justices continue to define the Court's terms of debate today: on the left and the right, there are, for example, no advocates of Frankfurter's near-complete judicial abstinence or of Douglas's romantic libertarian activism. And in the political arena, the constitutional debates of the 1940s and '50s seem less relevant today than those of the Progressive era, when liberals first attacked the conservative Court as pro-business, and conservatives insisted that only the Court could defend liberty in the face of an out-of-control regulatory state. But Feldman does not try to make too much of the contemporary relevance of the battles he describes: this is a first-rate work of narrative history that succeeds in bringing the intellectual and political battles of the post-Roosevelt Court vividly to life. Reviewed by Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, is the author of The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

After the court-packing fiasco of 1937 (FDR v. the Constitution, 2009, by Burt Solomon), Supreme Court vacancies gave FDR his opportunities to install liberals on the tribunal. What happened next propels Feldman’s narrative, which centers on four of the president’s picks: Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, and Robert Jackson. New Deal credentials each may have had, but once in robes, each adopted divergent approaches to judging. By so personifying competing modes of constitutional interpretation, Feldman, a law professor, elevates the story from specialty to general interest and, to boot, embroiders technicalities about original intent and the like with animosities that roiled the quartet. Jackson loathed Black; Frankfurter thought Black a legal incompetent; and Douglas’ presidential ambition alienated his colleagues, as did Douglas’ results-driven way of deciding cases. Taking readers into the conference room, Feldman shows this unpolished side of the Supreme Court in cases of the 1940s, culminating in his account about how Frankfurter achieved unanimity in the landmark desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education. The interpersonal factor in court politics is knowledgeably displayed in Feldman’s intriguing account. --Gilbert Taylor

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve; First Edition edition (November 8, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0446580570
  • ISBN-13: 978-0446580571
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #370,722 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Noah Feldman is currently Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard University. Esquire named him among 75 influential figures for the 21st century and New York magazine designated him as one of three top "influentials in ideas." In 2003, he served as senior constitutional advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and subsequently advised members of the Iraqi Governing Council on the drafting of an interim constitution. Feldman is the author of four previous books: The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State (2008); Divided By God (2005); What We Owe Iraq (2004); and After Jihad (2003); as well as numerous articles for The New York Times Magazine.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

81 of 83 people found the following review helpful By Philly gal VINE VOICE on October 28, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Scorpions - the title references a description of the Supreme Court Justices as "nine scorpions in a bottle" - is the story of four widely different justices all appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. These four, Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, Robert Jackson and William O. Douglas could not have been more dissimiliar. Frankfurter, a Jew was perhaps the most liberal voice in the country when Roosevelt appointed him to the court. Black was a southern country lawyer former KKK member with an altogether unique interpretation of the constitution, Jackson, a plain spoken lawyer seeking a pragmatic resolution to court cases and Douglas, a westerner who defined wide limits for individual freedom. I enjoyed the detail and back story the author presented on all of these men. The intellectual growth that allowed these men to listen, learn and change their minds from where they started was so appealing in this story. Black from a KKK member to perhaps the strongest civil rights supporter on the court. Frankfurter from the most liberal to arguably the most conservative member of the court. I was fascinated at how men of such widely divergent backgrounds could come together to decide some of the most important issues of the twentieth century. The background of the Japanese interment in WWII, Truman's seizure of the steel mills, civil rights and lastly the Brown v. the Board of Education decisions are all covered with the deliberations and interactions that led to the court decisions. Personalities are on full display. I admit much of the legal theories were lost on me and did for me (the clearly non legal reader) drag out the story a bit but I still enjoyed this book as a history of the Supreme Court and the justices who served there.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
By way of disclosure I am a private scholar who has studied the interplay of power among different institutions and entities, whether it is government, corporations, or other power groups. I have been a member of the Supreme Court Historical Society for many of the last 30 years and I have been fortunate to have developed personal relationships with many associate justices and two Chief Justices. Having said that, I am simply amazed at the wonderfully expertly written, fascinating, and breathtaking book that Feldman has written.

His anecdotes and historical references are both brilliant and factual. He has truly captured the essence of the Supreme Court and its stormy relationship with FDR during a critical period of American history. This was during the 1930's and for the next thirty years. This is a book about 5 egos, four of them justices, and one President, and the interplay between them during 3 decades. The first part of the book is devoted to a fast sweeping biography of 4 associate justices all of whom were appointed by the patrician Franklin Roosevelt.

The Players in this book:

Felix Frankfurter

Brilliant beyond anyone's understanding, he was the product of a poor family living in the slums of New York. He went to the City College of New York, and although it is not mentioned in the book, City College at that time was considered better than Harvard because the Ivy League was limiting Jewish enrollment intentionally. This allowed City College at one point to have more Nobel Prize winners than Harvard.

After graduation, Frankfurter put together some money and went on to Harvard Law where he excelled.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on November 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Noah Feldman's SCORPIONS is an important work of popular history. This group biography recounts the lives of four Supreme Court justices whose imprint on American history and law is substantial. Justices Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Hugo Black and Robert Jackson were giants of the law whose contribution to modern constitutional jurisprudence cannot be ignored. Each brought a unique and diverse background to the High Court and shared only one trait when selected by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to serve: none had any prior judicial experience. The contemporary United States Supreme Court is noteworthy because eight of the nine justices arrived after years of experience as judges on the various federal appellate courts. Only President Obama's most recent appointment, Elena Kagan, lacked federal judicial experience. SCORPIONS reminds readers that this experience is no indication of judicial greatness and indeed may be a predictor of something far worse: judicial mediocrity.

Three of the four men covered by Professor Feldman have been the subject of numerous biographies and, in the case of Douglas, a two-volume autobiography. Jackson, a small-town New York lawyer who rose to the Supreme Court and took a leave of absence to lead the Nuremberg prosecutions, has yet to be the focus of an exhaustive judicial biography. Feldman's coverage of his life, political rise and relationship with FDR is informative and rewarding. But SCORPIONS is only a general discussion of the four justices. This is not intended to be a criticism of the book, because its importance comes from what it tells readers about the interaction between the men and how their battles influenced the direction of the Supreme Court during an important era.
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