- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 10, 2007


By Jan Crawford Greenburg

Penguin Press, $27.95,

340 pages


The Supreme Court has a broad and pervasive impact on all facets of American life, but it is the least known branch of government. The nine justices toil in relative obscurity, and the absence of television cameras makes their work less approachable than that of their counterparts in the executive and legislative branches.

Fortunately, ABC News correspondent Jan Crawford Greenburg has come to the rescue. In “Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court,” she provides a primer about how the court works, with plenty of examples from the last 25 years.

Don’t despair, however; this is not a dry, difficult-to-wade-through textbook that makes all but the most avid history buffs reach for the No-Doze. Rather, Ms. Greenburg has produced a compelling narrative that combines Politics 101, solid legal analysis and more than a little gossip.

Ms. Greenburg, who has a law degree from the University of Chicago, focuses on the efforts by conservatives to capture the high court’s ideological soul. She credits President Bush, whose efforts to cement legacies on foreign policy and in certain domestic areas are still works in progress, for shaping a high court in his philosophical image.

She contends that in appointing John Roberts as chief justice and Samuel Alito as an associate justice, President Bush found men who possessed both first-rate intellects and political skills who could “build alliances and working majorities… . The Court is now poised to recede from some of the divisive cultural debates. George W. Bush and his team of lawyers will be shaping the direction of American law and culture long after many of them are dead.’

Unlike Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter, who were appointed by Republican presidents but turned out to have moderate views on issues such as civil rights and abortion, Justice Alito and Justice Roberts have a well-grounded conservative philosophy and are less apt to be persuaded by strong-willed colleagues.

Justice O’Connor actually voted with her left-leaning colleagues more often after liberal icon Associate Justice William Brennan left the court in 1990, in part because there was bad blood between the two justices stemming from Justice Brennan’s rebuke of Justice O’Connor in a dissent during her first term on the court.

The book succinctly summarizes the contrasting approaches to jurisprudence and intracourt politicking of Mr. Roberts and Ms. O’Connor.

“Roberts was different from O’Connor in almost every way, and he had little patience for her approach to the law, which he saw as undisciplined, almost to the point that bordered on irresponsible,” Ms. Greenburg concludes. “Her vote was always up for grabs. That was not how John Roberts thought a Supreme Court justice should be. Roberts thought the focus should be on the law, not the individual judge or justice.”

Ms. Greenburg does not tell the reader which approach she favors. This focus on reportage and analysis serves her well and makes for a generally evenhanded book.

It falls short in a key area: failing to give enough attention to the intellectual rationale behind the liberal approach to jurisprudence. She focuses extensive attention on efforts by conservatives to overturn what they see as the past activism and excesses of the high court. Their critique gets a great deal of ink but there is not equal space given to what motivated liberals to enact their worldview when deciding cases.

However, her extensive attention to the conservative legal revolution pays off in the form of revealing details about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the White House and the Department of Justice during the judicial selection process. Those who love palace intrigue and detailed chronicles of ideological battles will find many juicy tidbits.

She dispels several bits of conventional wisdom that have often been repeated in the media. Justice Clarence Thomas, who is regularly depicted as under the political thumb of Justices Antonin Scalia, is in fact very much his own person, and Ms. Greenburg shows how in several cases Justice Thomas brought Justice Scalia around to his way of thinking.

Also, Kenneth Starr, who became a hero to conservatives during his stint as the special prosecutor during the Clinton administration, was thought to be too philosophically unreliable for a seat on the high court when one became open during the first Bush presidency. Ironically, the vacancy went to Mr. Souter, whom conservatives view as an unmitigated disaster.

This combination of analysis, gossip, and myth dispelling makes “Supreme Conflict” a valuable contribution to the discussion of contemporary politics and policy.

Claude R. Marx is a political columnist for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Massachusetts and author of a chapter on media and politics in the forthcoming book “The Sixth Year Itch,” edited by Larry Sabato.

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