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A History of the Supreme Court Revised ed. Edition

4.5 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195093872
ISBN-10: 0195093879
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; Revised ed. edition (February 23, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195093879
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195093872
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 1.2 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #262,429 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Omer Belsky on December 21, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Bernard Schwartz's "A History of the Supreme Court" is a readable if dry narrative of the 200 years of the Supreme Court between John Jay and William Rhenquist. The story of the supreme court is a complicated one, and for the most part, Schwartz tells it well. If his book is short on analysis and long on description, it is probably more due to the nature of the subject then to the qualities of the author.

Schwartz focuses on two main themes in the narrative. The first one, addressed in the Prologue and in the first few chapters, deal with the practice of Judicial Review in Anglo-Saxon common law, and especially in the early US, where under Chief Justice Marshall, the supreme court has been established as SUPREME - that is, in position to pass judgment on State legislators, State courts, and even the US Congress.

The theme is very prominent in the early history of the Court, where the Supreme Court fulfilled its Hamiltonian role as the final authority on the constitutionality of law. Very early, US Justices have proved that they were every bit the politicians as the Jurists - Chief Marshall successfully established Judicial Review in his Marbury vs. Madison decision, while Roger B Taney catastrophically endangered it in his attempt to end the political crisis of the Union via his Dred Scott Decision.

Later in the book, Schwartz still devotes time to the question of Judicial Review, but then in a new disguise - that of Judicial restraint, which Schwartz first sees in the actions of Roger B Taney, but which were only manifested plainly in the dissents of Oliver Wendell Holmes, most famously in the Lochner vs. New York case (1905), where the majority judges, led by Rufus W.
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It was an eye-opening experience. In my last year of college I took two courses on Constitutional Law (Con Law I & II) and discovered most of what I thought to be true of the Supreme Court was false. The least democratic of the three branches of government was in fact the most likely to protect individual liberty. We weren’t assigned textbooks. We read Supreme Court decisions directly from the casebooks, such as Marbury v. Madison, Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, and Roe v. Wade. We read both majority and minority Court opinions, both of which could be equally persuasive. Indeed, a number of the minority opinions (the Dred Scott decision and Plessy v. Ferguson are two prime examples) would eventually become the majority opinions when these cases were overturned by the Court decades later. Reading the cases was sometimes tedious but always fascinating, especially in how the justices read the Constitution and applied it in their decisions. The Constitution is not a static set of laws but a living document, intended by the framers to be flexible to meet the needs of a changing society.

“A History of the Supreme Court” by Bernard Schwartz is about how the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution from the time of its inception down to the publication of his book, in 1993. The book reminds me of my two Con Law classes as it covers the same material. The author begins by saying the great theme of our nation’s development is the idea of law as a check upon government power. Indeed, the Constitution is not a prohibition against what the people might do, but a prohibition against what the government might do.

The Supreme Court was hardly supreme in the beginning.
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Update: Since I wrote this review there have been several good books about the history of supreme court that have been written. Some, like Rehnquist's, might even be better. Still, none cover it all, and I believe that if you are interested in the history of court and want to read more than one or two books, this one should be on your list, even if it was written years ago. End of update.

I give five stars for three reasons. First, unlike many other legal histories it has few Latin phrases and most legal terms are explained. Second, the competition is multivolume tombs, most of which are very out dated, so this is by default the best book out there. Third, arguably, every major justice and case that shaped the philosophy of Constitutional Law is covered. It is remarkable that such long history can be meaningfully condensed into one book. It is an excellent reference to look up subjects that appear in books, news and current events. It is essential for understanding Constitutional Law.

For a faster read try skimming through some of the drier (or less well written) biographical descriptions, which are relatively easy to weed out. Schwartz covers some of the most interesting aspects of the early court when the Justices also served on the federal circuit court, spending as much as six months of the year traveling cross country under the most brutal conditions. Schwartz describes the evolution of Constitutional Law involving the struggle between the federal and state governments leading up to and after the Civil War. His coverage of Holmes during the development of the modern system of federal government is very good, although sometimes biased with Schwartz's liberal views. Schwartz goes into special detail for Civil Rights with chapters on Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v.
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