Personally, I am fascinated by the Supreme Court of the United States and have been since I was a teenager. Those nine people wear solemn black robes and emerge from crimson curtains to sit on high like legal gods of Olympus, it seems. We rarely hear anything about them other than that they’ve been appointed by the president, they’ve stepped down, or they’ve died. It’s interesting to me when I see a video of one of the justices speaking at an academic institution or debating each other over matters Constitutional at a public forum. It’s like seeing your teacher out of school, in a way. What adds to the mystery of the Supreme Court is the lack of television coverage of the proceedings, and the fact that their words reach across the social and legal fabric of our nation in their written opinions. It’s almost biblical: ”So let it be written, so let it be done.” From Olympus, the many justices and the chief justices of the United States have made their impact on the cultural life of this nation in ways subtle and explosively profound. They have ruled. And barriers have fallen or, sadly, through parts of our history, gone up, only to be torn down by more enlightened gods.
The Supreme Court is the only court of law mentioned in the Constitution of the United States. Its first among equals is called the Chief Justice of the United States. And five of those chiefs are the subjects of retired Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens in what is not quite memoir, but insight, in his book, Five Chiefs. As the Court’s third longest-serving justice, Stevens occupies a unique perch of observation on the history of the Court and its impact on jurisprudence in the tumultuous last half of the twentieth century, having begun his relationship with the Supreme Court in 1947 under a clerkship with Justice Wiley Rutledge.
What is immediately evident is Stevens’ towering intellect. Although the book iterates his thoughts on the governance of the Court and the effectiveness of the chiefs under which he encountered (including a preliminary rundown of the history of the chief justices of the Court before Stevens was confirmed to his seat in 1975) the text is rich–and probably too rich for anyone not intensely interested in case law–with the legal reasonings and background deliberations of the landmark cases of the last half of the century and contains a great deal of exposition on the cases that defined Stevens’ own legal philosophy. From Chief Justice Vinson to Chief Justice Roberts, Stevens is generous, maybe to a fault, in providing the reader with what can be only termed a superficial behind the scenes memoir of life on the high court.
Of Chief Justice Vinson, Stevens notes his long service to the Court, but gently casts his opinion on the intellectual curiosity of the chief, noting that he was “by no means the intellectual leader of the Court.” One of the Court’s more modern controversial chiefs, Earl Warren, is credited with his capable handling of the inquiry into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and an intensive look into the deliberations regarding Brown v. Board of Education and the famous Miranda case are scrutinized as the anchors of Warren’s term. Stevens is probably more kind with age than he might have been during his younger days when it comes to casting the eye of history on Chief Justice Warren Burger, the first chief with which he served as an associate justice. Lots of credit about the hard work of the case law of Burger’s administration of the court belongs to the fellow associates, but he credits Burger as a sharp administrator of the governance of the court system and how the work of the justices gets done.
What becomes part of the cream that rises to the top is how the temperament and style of each chief justice affects the working life of the associate justices and the atmosphere of the Court. Where Burger allowed lingering conferences and deliberations, Rehnquist was not afraid to cut off discussion and get business done quickly. Where this memoir falls short, however, is the unbiased eye. Unfortunately, the memoirs to come out of the Court by its former justices have been as mysterious as the institution itself. Each memoirist has insisted that there has never been an unkind word, action, or intent among the nine who continually serve year in and year out. This trend continues with Justice Stevens although history shows these rose-colored attempts to maintain the equilibrium of the justices’ attitudes as something more than human to be, at best, not quite honest. Just as Stevens insists, and this is of course, customarily true, that each justice begins argument with a handshake, we also know from others, throughout history, that the sheer numbers of 5-4 decisions have brought acrimony among those who were involved in the determination of those cases. Felix Frankfurter, for example, referred to Chief Justice Warren as a “Dumb Swede” and Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Court’s first African American, raged against William Rehnquist when Rehnqhist referred to Mexican workers as “wetbacks.” There have been justices who refused to sit and listen to colleagues speak during private conference, and justices who have written scathing dissenting opinions.
So, while Justice Stevens offers compelling intellectual gravitas in recounting his years of service under some of the more intriguing chiefs of the Court’s modern history, the reader knows that this isn’t a Kitty Kelley book of revelations. And that is to be expected in this age of politicization of the Court, itself, where every nominee is grilled under the lights about infusing his or her own personal beliefs and experiences into the opinions they must send down from on high. But, nevertheless, Stevens offers a dutiful account of his years of public service, sprinkling his narrative with personal flourishes and anecdotes about his relationships with his fellow justices, and giving the generations ahead his view of the legal landscape he helped plant and sow. Stevens’ term on the court, from 1975 until his retirement in 2010 cast a long shadow over the political and legal history of the country. His gentle memoir, Five Chiefs, is worthy of consideration based on position alone. For the student of history and of jurisprudence, the book is definitely one to have on the shelf for the ages.
FIVE CHIEFS: A SUPREME COURT MEMOIR. By John Paul Stevens. Little, Brown. 292 pp.