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Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court Reprint Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0143113041
ISBN-10: 0143113046
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Editorial Reviews Review

With its closed chambers and formal language, the Supreme Court tends to deflect drama away from its vastly powerful proceedings. But its mysteries hold plenty of intrigue for anyone with the access to uncover them. In Supreme Conflict, Jan Crawford Greenburg has that access, and then some. With high-placed sourcing that would make Bob Woodward proud, she tells the story of the Court's recent decades and of the often-thwarted attempts by three conservative presidents to remake the Court in their image. Among the revelations are the surprising influence of the most-maligned justice, Clarence Thomas, and the political impact of personal relations among these nine very human colleagues-for-life. Written for everyday readers rather than legal scholars, her account sidesteps theoretical subtleties for a compelling story of the personalities who breathe life into our laws. --Tom Nissley

Crawford graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, and was a legal affairs reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Supreme Court correspondent for PBS's NewsHour before becoming the legal correspondent for ABC News. We had the chance to ask her a few questions about Supreme Conflict:

Questions for Jan Crawford Greenburg

Jan Crawford How hard was it to get the access to justices and clerks that you had for this book? Does the culture of the Court promote that kind of openness about their deliberations?

Jan Crawford Greenburg: Hard! And let me tell you it took some time--they weren't flinging open the doors of their chambers for the first few years I was covering the Court. It takes awhile to build relationships and trust, and I was fortunate enough to do that during the dozen years I've been covering the Supreme Court. As for openness, I think the culture of the Court instead promotes anonymity and privacy. The justices aren't like the people across the street in Congress, or down Pennsylvania Avenue in the White House. They don't hold press conferences or solicit media coverage of their views. They speak through their opinions. I was fortunate that they also chose to speak with me for this important book about the direction of the Supreme Court and its role in our lives. Harry Blackmun's notes must be a treasure chest for Court historians. Could you describe what you found there?

Greenburg: A treasure chest is an understatement. Harry Blackmun took extraordinarily detailed notes--almost breathtaking in their scope and level of detail. (He would even write down what lawyers were wearing when they'd appear in Court to argue a case.) He recorded the justices' comments during their private conferences--when they discuss cases--and he took down their votes. And he kept all the key memos and letters that the justices would send back and forth when they were discussing a case. It was a tremendous window into the Court's inner sanctum, during some of the most pivotal years for the institution. One of the biggest revelations of your book is your characterization of Clarence Thomas as far more influential, even in his first year on the Court, than he's usually given credit for. Could you describe what his role on the Court has been?

Greenburg: Clarence Thomas has been the most maligned justice in modern history--and also the most misunderstood and mischaracterized. I found conclusive evidence that far from being Antonin Scalia's intellectual understudy, Thomas has had a substantial role in shaping the direction of the Court--from his very first week on the bench. The early storyline on Thomas was that he was just following Scalia's direction, or as one columnist at the time wrote, "Thomas Walks in Scalia's Shoes." That is patently false, as the documents and notes in the Blackmun papers unquestionably show. If any justice was changing his vote to join the other that first year, it was Scalia joining Thomas, not the other way around. But his clear and forceful views affected the Court in unexpected ways. Although he shored up conservative positions, his opinions also caused moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to back away and join the justices on the Left. Not every Supreme Court confirmation is a battle, even when the Senate and the President are from different parties. What separates the candidates who sail through from the ones who get put through the wringer?

Greenburg: The recent appointment of Samuel Alito shows a justice with a clearly conservative record can get confirmed--and even pick up some votes from Democrats. Maybe the secret is developing a reputation as a fair and nonpartisan judge on a federal appeals court. At his hearings, liberal and conservative judges who had worked with him on the appeals court testified in his behalf, as did his law clerks--some of whom were self-identified liberals. Alito was the conservative counterpart to Clinton nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She had been an outspoken advocate for liberal causes (including the ACLU), but she'd developed a reputation as a fair and thoughtful judge on the federal appeals court, garnering respect from both sides. How much do Americans know about how their federal courts work? What should they know?

Greenburg: Most Americans, understandably, think about trials and drama when the issue of the courts is raised. But the appeals courts--and the Supreme Court--remain mysterious, even though those courts have an enormous impact on American life. The judiciary is one of the three branches of government, but its decisions take on outsized importance at times. It can provide a vital check against abuse of individual rights by government--but it also can usurp the role of the people when it reaches out and takes on issues that more appropriately belong in the purview of the other branches. Even though you show how our expectations for where new members will take the Court are so often wrong, I'll ask you anyway: What do you expect in the next few years from the Roberts Court?

Greenburg: To be more conservative than the one led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist. John Roberts himself is a solid judicial conservative who believes the Court has too often taken on issues that belong in the realm of elected legislatures. He is advocating a more restrained approach, with greater consensus among the justices. In addition, Justice Alito replaced key swing-voter Sandra Day O'Connor, the Court's first female justice. O'Connor's vote often carried the day on the closely divided Court--and she typically sided with liberals on social issues like abortion, affirmative action, and religion. Alito is more conservative, and I expect to see the Court turn to the right on those and other issues.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

In Supreme Conflict, ABC News legal correspondent Jan Crawford Greenburg examines our judicial branch's highest court, parlaying her all-access pass into an analysis that reveals one of the most volatile periods in the Court's history. Greenburg moves the story along with engaging prose and salts the book with little-known details and anecdotes, though critics wonder if the author's unprecedented access might have come at the cost of revealing even deeper truths about the book's subjects. Jack Rakove of the Chicago Tribune questions Greenburg's supposition that President Bush's choices will have far-reaching consequences and asserts that her "conclusion that the Roberts and Alito appointments may seal the character of the court 'over the next three to four decades' overreaches." Despite some critics' reservations, Supreme Conflict provides fresh insights into the powerful judicial branch.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (January 29, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143113046
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143113041
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (79 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #236,338 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 57 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan Groner VINE VOICE on July 9, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I read this book practically in one sitting -- which is saying something for a book about the last twenty years of the Supreme Court. I have some vocational and avocational interest in the subject: as a journalist, I covered many of the judicial nomination battles of the first George W. Bush term, though (as Greenburg points out) there were no Supreme Court nominations then. So, in the course of my work, I met some of the key players in Greenburg's account (including John Roberts when he was nominated the first time, for the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C.) and I think Greenburg has gotten everything right. And she does as good a job as anyone in explaining the chief mystery of the last couple of decades: how a Court with seven appointees of GOP Presidents could be as moderate as it was.

I see little or no evidence of political bias, left or right, in Greenburg's book. Her references to Justice David Souter as a disappointment and an example of poor staff work are clearly stated from the perspective of conservative activists, not necessarily as reflecting the author's views. In addition, Greenburg stays clear of another, subtler form of journalistic bias -- a bias in favor of people whom she knows and who have cooperated with her. Example: Greenburg clearly likes and admires Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and benefited from a lengthy interview with the retired Justice. However, she does not shy away from expressing a (well-deserved) criticism of Justice O'Connor -- that the Justice had no consistent vision of the law and decided cases one by one, almost by instinct and out of a vague sense of what would be "just."

This book is hard to put down, and one need not be a Supreme Court "junkie" to feel that way.
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74 of 90 people found the following review helpful By Ronald H. Clark VINE VOICE on January 30, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is just a terrific book on the recent Supreme Court. The author, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, currently is a correspondent for ABC News, and for many years covered the Court for the Chicago Tribune. The author develops a dual focus in her analysis. First, she looks at how certain key Justices were selected for nomination to the Court. Those Justices include Souter, Kennedy, Thomas, O'Connor, Scalia, Miers, Roberts and Alito. She also covers the Bork nomination. Particularly interesting in this regard, and the "struggle for control" of the Court she sees continually occurring, is the conservative paranoia that true believer conservatives only must be nominated by GOP Presidents, individuals who will unlike Souter, Blackmun, Kennedy, and O'Connor for example, never deviate from a firm conservative outlook no matter what seductive influences (such as the New York Times and the Georgetown cocktail circuit)impact upon them. The author well documents that the Federalist Society and other judicial conservative groups felt themselves continually betrayed as one after another Justice moved to a more moderate position despite having appeared to be a firmly-fixed Scalia/Thomas type conservative. The internal struggle in GOP White Houses with these groups and the process of selection itself are superbly discussed, based primarily it appears upon the author's extensive interviewing, the Blackmun papers, and documentation at various Presidential libraries (especially the Reagan facility).

The second focus of the book is equally fascinating. Here the author analyzes the struggle within the Court for dominance, the process of coalition building, the strategies of inter-Justice persuasion, and the role of Justice personality in the mix.
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35 of 44 people found the following review helpful By DC3232 on January 24, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I just bought the book and finished it in a day. Greenburg has really done a very fine job providing a fascinating account of the Rehnquist and (so soon!) Roberts Courts. I won't spoil anything, but there is a lot of information previously undisclosed regarding the circumstances of O'Connor's and Rehnquist's retirements, the search for replacements, and the nominations of Roberts, Miers, and Alito. There are also segments dedicated to the other justices, and some interesting remarks on Bush v. Gore from Justices O'Connor and Kennedy.

Importantly, Greenburg has no discernable bias or agenda, and people of all political stripes will enjoy it. (Though conservatives may revel in the narrative a bit more given that they're the ones who have made progress on the court in the last year and a half with the coming of Roberts and Alito).

The best inside account of the Court since Woodward's famed "The Brethren." Greenburg's book does not focus extensively on legal doctrine, but instead looks at the political forces that shape the Court.
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24 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Joseph Boone VINE VOICE on April 9, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Jan Crawford Greenburg traces the history of conservatives to re-shape the court beginning with President Reagan and moving through the confirmation of Justice Alito. The author obviously had access to a number of sources as well as the notes of Justice Blackmun. She is able to tell a complete narrative both inside the Supreme Court and inside the White House as candidates for nomination to the bench are debated, prepared, etc. She devotes more space to conservative administrations and justices but this seems due to the nature of the narrative she is attempting to construct rather than an attempt to slight anyone.

This book methodically traces the successes and failures of the nomination process. There were enough contentious and controversial proceedings to provide plenty of grist for the mill and plenty of behind the scenes details that display the thought processes going into each nomination. There is also a nice level of background information on the nominee so that you begin to see them as real people, and not just the shallow caricatures that the media typically portrays. Some may be disappointed by a relative lack of detail in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings but I would say she hit it just about right. That widely publicized mess could fill an entire book and is not central to the story she is attempting to tell. She discusses it enough to make clear what a firestorm it was and then moves on.

Once each person makes it onto the court, she walks us through the impact that they had on the group dynamic. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how one justice may affect another to change that group dynamic. Once again, we are presented with justices as human beings with normal thoughts and emotions.
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