When “The U.S. Supreme Court: A Very Short Introduction” arrived in the mail, I initially thought I had ordered incorrectly. It looked too short, too cute — maybe only nine inches tall with barely 100 bite-sized pages. Yet after a moment’s pause, I realized that this was what the title had promised: a very short, accessible introduction.
“The U.S. Supreme Court: A Very Short Introduction” is the latest book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Linda Greenhouse LAW ’78, who covered the Supreme Court for the New York Times for 30 years, and is now the Knight Distinguished Journalist in Residence and Joseph Goldstein Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School. It is the latest “Very Short Introduction” — part of a series that concisely introduces the reader to topics ranging from Heidegger to hieroglyphs. “The U.S. Supreme Court” is a perfect introduction to the Supreme Court by one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject.
Greenhouse begins by highlighting the Supreme Court’s rather inauspicious beginnings. The Court didn’t hear a case until a year after its first session; indeed, writes Greenhouse, during its first two terms “it had almost nothing to do.” It wasn’t until 1792 that the 2-year-old Court issued its first opinion. And the early Supreme Court was hardly considered prestigious. When the first Chief Justice John Jay ran for and won the governorship of New York, vacating his seat on the bench, a newspaper called his victory a “promotion.” John Rutledge initially declined being a Justice on the first Supreme Court in order to sit on the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas. It wasn’t until the venerable John Marshall became Chief Justice that the judiciary was “no longer the stepsister of the other two branches.”
Even after the Court began to gain some modicum of power and prestige, its existence was tenuous. The Constitution says almost nothing about what the Supreme Court should do all day; it barely alludes to the very existence of the office of a Chief Justice. So the Court had to define its duties over time, through strategic, cautious, historic rulings (like the storied Marbury v. Madison). Even the size of the Supreme Court changed constantly, going from five to six to nine to ten back to seven before finally settling on the current nine. This demonstrates, if nothing else, that the Supreme Court existed in a state of flux.
Yet over time, it would become one of most important components of our government. Abortion, affirmative action, gun control, gay rights, free speech, the death penalty, and the separation of church and state have all appeared in cases on the Court’s docket in recent years. And they are likely to reappear in years to come, especially as the debates over the legitimacy of Obamacare and the constitutionality of gay marriage come to a head.
The members of the Supreme Court matter. The constitutional right to have an abortion, the ability of state schools to use race in assessing applicants and the invalidation of the death penalty for mentally retarded defendants have all hinged on a single vote. These 5-4 decisions illustrate the subjectivity of Supreme Court work — as Greenhouse writes, “the art of constitutional interpretation is far from a paint-by-numbers exercise.” In other words, had one member of the Court been different, our society would be very different today. In other words, this stuff matters.
If you know very little about the Supreme Court, there is perhaps no better guide than Linda Greenhouse. In fact, her New York Times coverage was so influential that some critics suggested that federal judges were changing their rulings in order to gain favorable coverage from her (in what is known as the “Greenhouse Effect”). And when Greenhouse writes in her very short introduction, “The behind-the-scenes drama remained unknown outside the Court for the next twelve years, until Justice Blackmun’s papers were opened to the public at the Library of Congress,” she neglects to mention that the public’s understanding of Blackmun’s papers is largely due to her own research (as highlighted in her thorough tome “Becoming Justice Blackmun”).
In 87 small pages (plus appendices at the end) Greenhouse cogently illustrates the history, functions, composition and importance of the Supreme Court. In a slim volume that you can literally carry around in your pocket, you will find a wealth of knowledge.