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88 of 90 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Behind-the-scenes look at the Burger Court
Although "The Brethren" was written a quarter of a century ago and it covers the Supreme Court sessions from 1969 to 1975, there are two reasons to hunt down a used copy of this book and read it today. The first is its examination of the important Court decisions of Warren Burger's early years, all of which still reverberate with their controversy and...
Published on July 29, 2003 by D. Cloyce Smith

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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but lacking
I was very much looking forward to reading this book. But I must say that from the first chapter I was disappointed with the writing. The book reads like a string of unrelated newspaper articles or diary entries. There is no underling arc that ties all of the little stories together.

However, despite this shortcoming, "The Brethen" is very interesting...
Published on October 20, 2006 by Bob


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88 of 90 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Behind-the-scenes look at the Burger Court, July 29, 2003
By 
Although "The Brethren" was written a quarter of a century ago and it covers the Supreme Court sessions from 1969 to 1975, there are two reasons to hunt down a used copy of this book and read it today. The first is its examination of the important Court decisions of Warren Burger's early years, all of which still reverberate with their controversy and implications. The second is to learn how, in spite of its famously left-of-center decisions, the Court began taking a sharp turn to the ideological right, spurred by the appointment of Burger and by the ascent of the young William Rehnquist.
"The Brethren" gave the Burger Court a reputation from which it never quite recovered. Although the Supreme Court has historically had its share of in-fighting, incompetence, and inanity, its internal meltdowns in the 1970s were occasionally beyond the pale. Woodward and Armstrong portray Burger as a well-meaning but ultimately misguided man obsessed by the legacy of Earl Warren, concerned far more with image than with principle, unskilled in management techniques that would have helped bring the Court to a consensus, and unashamed of his repeated attempts to assign the Court's decisions in a fashion insured to thwart the will of the majority. Even today, most historians, regardless of ideological bent, view the Burger years as a mediocre and often inconsistent transition between the liberal Warren Court and the conservative Rehnquist Court.
It's not a perfect book, by any means. Woodward and Armstrong are at their page-turning best when they examine in detail some of the more famous decisions and controversies faced by the Court (busing, obscenity, abortion, the death penalty, and--especially--Watergate). And the account is surprisingly balanced: anyone expecting a "liberal" flogging of an increasingly conservative court will be surprised, on the one hand, by the authors' depictions of the increasingly unfit and ornery Douglas and the unsophisticated yet affable Marshall and, on the other hand, by their open admiration of Rehnquist, who comes across as (by far) the most likeable and amiable of the justices. Nevertheless, their account is a bit too heavy on office gossip. True--this journalistic style brings the fourteen justices who served during these years to life, but what's lacking is the necessary detailed legal background that would make sense of the Court's day-to-day work rather than its scandalous backbiting and personality conflicts. Overall, though, it's an admirable piece of journalism that makes the Court seem as human as it really is.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Inside Look at the Supreme Court, July 11, 2004
Despite being a bit dated, The Brethren, by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, remains one of the most illuminating looks at the inner workings of the Supermen Court. And certainly it will remain a very interesting historical look at the court it examines.
The Brethren attempts to present the reader with what "really" goes on in the Supreme Court. It describes the conferences, the personality of justices, and how justice's feel toward each other, items which are generally hidden from the public. Covering the terms from 1969-1975, Woodward and Armstrong gives us a look at the fourteen justices and how they dealt with the major issues facing the court. The book describes how Burger changed his conference votes so he could assign the majority opinion of the court, angering William Douglas and William Brennen. He also describes how Thurgood Marshall greeted Burger "Hey chiefy baby", getting a kick out of making him feel uncomfortable. The reader sees how Harry Blackmun agonized at being considered Burger's "boy" which eventually led to his breaking away from the conservative wing of the court. Woodward also tells of the lack of respect the justices had for the abilities of Chief Justice Burger, who wrote poorly reasoned opinions that embarrassed some members of the court.
The main thesis of the book is how the moderates control the opinions of the court. A majority opinion must have the vote of at least five members of the court, therefore the opinion becomes a compromise between the author of the opinion and his joining brethren. Even when an ideologue writes an opinion, his opinion must be amended to maintain the votes of his brethren. Therefore, the majority opinions of the court usually reflect a somewhat moderate solution, as compared to the ideological make-up of the court.
The Brethren also relates how politics play a key role in the decisions of the court. Justices have predispositions to every case they decide, and most have an ideology that influences their decisions. The role of the moderates on the court is also an example of how politics effects the decisions of the court. If a president is able to appoint enough justices of his political persuasion, the court's ideological make-up will change, as will the direction of the court's decisions. Justices on the court do worry about the effect of new appointments to the Supreme Court. When President Gerald Ford appointed Justice John Paul Stevens to the court to replace Justice Douglas, Brennen and Marshall worried about the future of abortion and busing, fearing a new conservative justice might vote to overturn or limit the scope of decisions in these areas. These are a few examples of the role of politics in the Supreme Court.
The strengths of this book include its in-depth view of court personalities, antidotes, and relationships between the justices. These are aspects of the court normally not made public. Another strength of the book is its description of how cases are decided, and how a court is "built" (a majority opinion). Further, the reader gets an understanding of the factors that influence a court's opinions such as ideology, compromise, persuasive arguments, and even interaction with the clerks.
The major weakness of the book is the lack of documentation. There is absolutely no documentation for the material presented in the book. Woodward's disclaimer is he got the information on background and deep background, meaning the sources go unnamed. He also claims he read memos, unpublished and rough draft opinions, and other unpublished written material generated by the court. Despite the lack of documentation The Brethren remains a must read for students interested in law and politics.
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37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Still the best book to read to understand the Supreme Court, August 1, 2004
By 
N. Peters (United States) - See all my reviews
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This is still a must-read for people seriously interested in the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, some of my fellow reviewers had to read this for class or were not interested in the topic, which is really too bad, but these individuals should not be the last word on the issue. I would also like to respond to some of the more outrageous comments from other reviewers:

"It is not an easy reading."

To those who do not have trouble reading the newspaper, it will be extremely easy reading. In fact, it is written in such a clear style, with short, to-the-point sentences, as to be among the easiest books I have ever read.

"The secretive world of the court would be difficult for any journalist to penetrate, and here Woodward and his cohort Armstrong prove themselves not to be up to the task."

Whoever wrote this obviously had not come of age when the book was published. The publication of "The Brethren" ranks as probably the most scandalous moment in the history of the Supreme Court, because no one to that date had even come close to gaining the insider access that Woodward and Armstrong did-- and no journalist has gotten this close to the Court since. This is an utterly glib and untrue comment. As close as is humanly possible, Woodward and Armstrong penetrated the Court.

"'The Brethren' is, more than any book I've ever read, a product of its times. It reflects the anti-war, anti-establishment, anti-Nixon, pro-activist, and downright revolutionary times of the early 1970s. If you choose to read "The Brethren," you should understand that it takes positions as being either right or wrong. And with political powder kegs (abortion, busing, the Watergate tapes, the death penalty, etc.), that is an intellectually risky proposition."

Funny, because when I read it I had the exact opposite reaction-- I was upset by the excesses of that period. However, I should note that "The Brethren"'s presentation of the issues is absolutely non-judgmental. It notes with honesty what each justice's view was, in such simple language that it often sounds reductionist. People who have read Woodward's other books know that he is not a partisan hack.

Again, people who are really interested in the Supreme Court should definitely hunt this down.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The veil is removed, December 21, 1998
By A Customer
Few nonfiction books combine intimate details, startling information, and humor as well as this one. In The Brethren, the reader will make discoveries about the Supreme Court that he will never have fathomed: the Justices are fallible; there is bickering, politics, and lobbying when making decisions; they joke about pornography; the clerks have a secret society, etc. It is guaranteed to open the reader's eyes to a world that he never could have imagined existed. And I reccomend the book even to those who have a slight interest in the law. Additionally, there are guaranteed laughs (and I mean HUGE laughs) from both the subtle and not so subtle humor that is sprinkled throughout.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Timeless Book, October 3, 2005
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This review is from: The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court (Paperback)
This book might seem dated: it describes the machinations of the court from 1969 to 1976, which included, among other things, Roe v. Wade and the Watergate tapes case. However, it is far from obsolete. The Brethren is a still-unprecedented look into the Supreme Court, the most secretive top-level branch of government. Although the faces (save one) and the cases are different, the way in which cases are decided by this body has likely not, plus it is a look at a tumultous time in ours as well as the Court's history.

The focus of the story is Chief Justice Warren Earl Burger, who replaces Earl Warren after his retirement. The irony of the names is unexplored, but it is appropriate, because Burger becomes progressively preoccupied with trying to match Warren's legacy. Unlike Warren, though, he allows political concerns and vanity to influence his judgment and, bit by bit, erode the confidence of his colleagues, to the point where the late William Rehnquist, then a young conservative on the Court, makes fun of him behind his back. Although this book is unflattering to some of the justices, such as Thurgood Marshall, who is noted as lazy and uninvolved and Byron White, who is noted to be unlikeable, Burger is the biggest loser here. The book was published in the early 80s, only a few years before Burger left the court, and the image of him as a pompous, preening, intellectually deficient and generally clueless politician cost him, big time. In spite of the landmark rulings his Court made, he was unable to reverse the Warren Court's liberal activism (as he had hoped to do). His "Minnesota Twin", Harry Blackmun, would drift further away from him, both politically and personally, until finally becoming the most liberal justice after the departure of Thurgood Marshall in 1991. Burger's Macchiavellian strategizing to assign opinions caused such a backlash that, at one point, William Brennan decides to vote for whatever side of a case puts him in the minority so that Burger won't be able to assign him another crappy oppinion.

Ultimately, Burger had good intentions, but his blunders dominate the book. He is a fascinating character, almost as bad a manager and as delusional as David Brent from the recent BBC TV Series The Office. Some of the principals come out looking good: Potter Stewart, for example, and Brennan also. But Rehnquist comes out best, in spite of some scheming and obfuscation. Burger, though, is front and center, and he's a reminder of how we're to seriously we all should take the business of the Court.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Supremely Informative, May 19, 2004
By 
Z. Blume (St. Louis, MO United States) - See all my reviews
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I read The Brethren because I have an interest in constitutional law and knew Woodward would do exhaustive research about the Supreme Court before writing this story. This book did not disappoint in its discussion of the constitutional issues debated in the court during the first 6 years of the Burger Court and it was a fascinating expose of the behind-the-scenes activites at the court and the personalities of the justices. Woodward does an excellent job presenting the cases in layman terms, perhaps because he began the project with no legal training himself, and it makes everything very clear for the reader. The most unsettling revelation in the book is how critical constitutional decisions often come down to compromises ("I'll side with you on this case if you side with me on that case") and personality clashes, though it is important to understand that the justices are people and their determinations are often subject to human passions. I think this book is an excellent history of the court in the early 70s and a cautionary tale for the future and I would highly recommend it to people interested in the Court and/or people interested in practicing law. I would also recommend it for people interested in politics in general, because the court is obviously very political whether it tried to remain independent or not.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great "insider's" view of the Supreme Court., May 31, 1998
By A Customer
The Brethren, co-authored by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, is an in-depth documentary of the United States Supreme Court from 1969 to 1975, under the leadership of Warren Burger. Woodward and Armstrong present, in detail, all aspects of the court and of it's members. Major issues faced by the court during these years included abortion, racial integration, censorship, and the relationships between the justices. This book is comparable to a lengthy newspaper article. Written more as a source of information than of entertainment, The Brethren is the brutal truth, but not boring. The book was interesting for me, because prior to reading it I did not know much about the Supreme Court. I wanted to finish the book so I could find out what the ruling would be on a particular case, and whether certain justices would retire or not. A feature that helped me get through this book was a chart included in it. The chart listed the justices, the President who appointed them, and the years they had served on the court. It seems that the authors of this book had access to information that all members of the court did not. Gossip was a major part of this book. William Douglas privately referred to Thurgood Marshall as a "spaghetti spine," and very few members of the court wielded a great deal of respect for Chief justice Burger. When Lewis Powell first arrived on the court in 1971, Potter Stewart informed him that "The leadership was not Burger. He was Chief Justice in name only." The justices who actually controlled the court's decisions were the swing votes, the justices in the center. If anyone ever asks me why the United States judicial system is so inefficient, I will tell them to read The Brethren. In the supreme court, no case is an easy case, and no decision ever comes quickly. Some issues, such as abortion, were not settled in the Burger court, and are still not settled today. The decisions made by the court are too difficult to be made by nine men. There is too m! uch work to be done on a single case, and many times the clerks contributed more to an opinion that the justices themselves. The clerks and secretaries were often mistreated by their superiors, but they worked hard and thought like their bosses hoping for advancements in the future. The Brethren is very well written and was worth reading. It taught me more than I ever wanted to know about the judicial process and the Supreme Court. If I ever need information regarding one of the court cases from this time period I will go back to this book. It could be used as a textbook for a course on the Supreme Court. Trust in the political system was both strengthened and weakened by this book. I was impressed by how difficult it is to confirm an appointment to the supreme court. Not just anyone can become a Supreme Court justice, but selection is limited to political insiders who don't always know what America is all about. A book like this keeps Washington on it's toes. It reminds politicians that someone is always watching, and even the closest colleague may be willing to talk. The average American probably wouldn't read this book. If they did, they would only pay attention to cases that could possibly pertain to them. It could definitely make some readers angry and confused, causing them to question the whole political system.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the most fascinating books I've read, February 20, 1999
By A Customer
Gives an amazing insight into what went on in the Supreme Court in the past few decades, particularly the interaction between the law and the individual judges' quirks and personal opinions. The Justices are portrayed in all their flaws, and it's amazing to watch the seemingly haphazard process produce results, as much through personal politics as through actual legal decisions! A must read.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Classic History of the Burger Court, March 18, 2006
By 
R. E. Marsh (Charlotte, NC United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court (Paperback)
I have just re-read this book, which I first enjoyed while I was taking Con Law in law school in the late 1970s. It is a little dated, but still a fun and well-written insider's story of the workings of the U.S. Supreme Court. Woodward and Armstrong write with an "inside the beltway" politically-correct perspective which may seem a little dated today. That's one feature that stands out. When it was originally released, Jimmy Carter was just being elected President, and the Congress was 2/3 Democratic. The political battlegrounds have changed in a generation. However, judicially, not as much as you might expect. Many key issues - abortion, free expression, and the role and limits of government, e.g., - continued through Rehnquist's term as Chief and still face the Roberts court. While today's Court line-up is more conservative, the process of internal court politics is certainly similar, so this book remains useful in attempting to understand both the history of the Court when it issued so many of those decisions that still drive politicians mad today, and how the often convoluted opinions on divisive issues are formed.

It also provides a little nostalgia in remembering Justices such as Potter Stewart and Thurgood Marshall. The authors capture a famous incident involving these two. When the Court of the 1970's considered an obscenity case, the Justices would retire, often en masse, to a basement screening room to take in the offending film. This was a world without home videos. Justice Stewart was infamous for his statement in an earlier case that, while he couldn't define obscenity, "I know it when I see it." Apparently, at the crucial moment (you know the word I'm avoiding) of the film, Justice Marshall would turn to Justice Stewart and proclaim: "That's it - I know it, I see it!"

Anyone interested in Constitutional Law and the Supreme Court should read this book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars WOW!!!!!, March 31, 1998
By A Customer
Impressive work and Kudos to Woodward and Armstrong. Though it may not be one to pick up for pleasure reading, actually I would highly recommend not reading it unless you needed to find info on the topic or are intrested in the topic. In a review, Anthony Lewis highly critized the book on the way it bashed members on the court and his close friend Brennan. And perhaps that is persicly the reason Lewis did not like the book, because it was often over critical of his friend. The book fully covers the court and gives great inside perspective, though it is questionable about the accuracy of their sources. So, if you are intrested in the topic, great read it. But I have to warn you it is not an easy reading.
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The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court
The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court by Bob Woodward (Paperback - July 1, 2005)
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