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Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Modern Supreme Court Paperback – May 1, 1999

3.9 out of 5 stars 59 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Edward Lazarus, a former Supreme Court clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun, spills the beans on an institution that values silence. Nobody is supposed to understand what happens behind the scenes of the high court--that's why the justices rarely speak to the media--but Lazarus tells all he knows from his time as a top aide to Blackmun in the Supreme Court's 1988 term. There's a lot of legal theory and history, but it's well presented and usually focuses on touchstone issues in U.S. politics; cases involving abortion, the death penalty, and racial preferences receive sustained treatment in these pages. There are gossipy bits, too, revealing unflattering details about several current justices. Sure to be one of the more controversial books of the year. --John J. Miller --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Part memoir, part constitutional history, this volume by a former law clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun reflects both his own experience at the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1988-89 term and substantial and original research. Lazarus, now a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, is a fine writer who makes accessible the legal esoterica behind the compelling struggles about such issues as the death penalty, abortion, and the role of race in the law. But his story is really a lamentation over, in his view, inconsistent and irrational adjudication, driven to an unprecedented degree by ideology and the manipulation practiced by unprincipled law clerks. Justices Kennedy and Brennan come in for particular attack on these grounds, while Justice Souter warrants his praise. Whether Lazarus is right or wrong in his assessment, this book is big news?few law clerks write such behind-the-scenes accounts. The clarity and authority with which he writes makes his contribution to the literature on the Supreme Court even more valuable. Recommended for all libraries.?Cynthia Harrison, George Washington Univ., Washington, DC
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Updated edition (June 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140283560
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140283563
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1.3 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #786,508 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Lazarus, who clerked for Justice Blackmun during the 1988-89 term, has written a behind-the-scenes look at the court and its decisions during that term. He focuses on abortion and capital punishment cases; somewhat surprisingly, he doesn't discuss the growth of "federalism." His overall thesis is that the overpoliticization of the Supreme Court nomination process, as exemplified by Bork's rejection, has resulted in a deep split between liberals and conservatives on the court, with the outcome in the control of Justices O'Connor and Kennedy, both of whom are too much subject to the influence of their clerks, especially a well-organized, highly partisan group of conservative clerks.
The book combines the clerk-driven content of "The Brethren" with documentary evidence from the Thurgood Marshall papers and a more sophisticated analysis of the legal issues. It provides a more complete view of Chief Justice Rehnquist's work style and why he has been so much more effective than Chief Justice Burger at effectuating the conservative legal agenda. It shows how the troubling developments of that period, such as the cert pool, have grown into monsters. It looks briefly at the newest justices (Thomas, Ginsberg, Breyer) and accurately characterizes Ginsberg so as to explain her frequent alliance with Rehnquist.
The book, despite its publicity, tells no tales out of school. It is much less chatty than "The Brethren." Its tone follows Justice Blackmun into sentimentality. With news reports missing or giving less space to the ideological battles occasionally revealed by the court's decisions, lay followers of the court should make a point of reading this book.
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Format: Paperback
Given that a fairly large number of my classmates at Harvard had high aspirations of clerking on the Supreme Court, it was always surprising to me that none of them had read this book. Reading through the (often unfair) reviews here, it is not surprising why.

Several complaints of Lazarus' 'unfair' attitudes are evinced: Lazarus focuses on abortion, discrimination, and death penalty 'snapshots' from a legal historical perspective then turns to the inner workings of the court.

Shallower readers more interested in Grisham or other fiction might object to Lazarus' description of the Scottsboro case: a legal reader wouldn't begin trying to understand death penalty litigation without that critical starting point. Lazarus describes death penalty obstructionists as dueling with death penalty hawks - such as law clerks who threw parties when executions were carried out, while Marshall/Brennan clerks conducted vigils.

After Woodward/Armstrong's scathing reviews of Blackmun in 'The Brethren,' one cannot fault Lazarus for striving to resuscitate Blackmun's career. After all, the man read deeply, thought profoundly, and cared tremendously about his legacy (which comes down, for better or worse, to Roe v. Wade).

And this drives the large number of deprecatory reviews: people who hate Roe v. Wade will hate anything written about Blackmun with the slightest degree of fairness, deriding the author unfairly and underscoring his claims that closed, prejudiced (or at least, pre-judged) minds dominate, and only a few are willing to stand up to them.
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Format: Paperback
I approached CLOSED CHAMBERS in response to hearing that a Supreme Court Clerk--a coveted one-year position as assistant to the Justices gained by a handful of top law graduates each year--had written a book about the experience and the Court reacted by tightening its rules. Instead of scandal, however, in CLOSED CHAMBERS I found a profound analysis of burning legal questions, primarily the death penalty and abortion. The author does not use the clerk's vantage point to sully the reputation of the Court or to give the impression of arbitrariness in the process by which the Supreme Court reaches its decisions. This unique perspective is used to show the reader the human side of the process, and show how the democratic decisions of the electorate came to influence policy through the persons that the elected, mostly Republican, Presidents could get approved by the mostly Democratic Senate. Of course, this seems genuinely interesting to me, because I realize the unavoidably subjective and political nature of much legal decision-making. Others might see the same text as debasing the sanctity of the objectivity of the law. The decisions of the Supreme Court have not been considered objective application of the law' in many decades--but, yes, the few who might read CLOSED CHAMBERS believing in objective application of the law might be surprised to find acknowledgment of subjectivity, here as in practically every other book about law written in the last 100 years.
The book offers little, if any, gossip and much legal reasoning. The history of the death penalty litigation occupies the greater part of the book, and is given in rich historical detail.
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