Books that deal predominantly with current events are always very tricky to review. More so than with history books, I become laser sensitive to bias and end up looking for it everywhere. It is to the credit of Supremely Partisan: How Raw Politics Tips the Scales in the United States Supreme Court that it was rather hard to determine the bias here. Sure, I could look up James D. Zirin and his chosen political party down the years, but it is to the credit of his writing that he comes off as intensely critical of both sides instead of favoring one over the other. I mention this first thing because, in these more partisan times, it is very easy to dismiss any book on current events if a hint of favoritism exists. Supremely Partisan manages to avoid this for me, and thus gets credit for something few books of this genre manage to pull off.
The Myth of the Impartial Court
In school, the average American is instilled with a vision of the Supreme Court that is glowing and incorruptible. We imagine a white marvel of architecture on a hill with marble pillars bright in the sunlight. As we wander inside, it is easy to summon a picture of wise and respected men and women clad in black robes, diligent at their work. They are the most intelligent and capable of us, granted lifelong terms of office as the highest judges in the land so they can always be above the petty squabbles of everyday politics. In times of trouble, they are our last bastion of civility, wielding ironclad laws laid down across centuries that have saved us from making terrible choices in the heightened emotions of the moment, time and time again.
Zirin’s main goal with this book is to puncture this legend of the courts and replace it with the truth. The fact is, according to Zirin, that the Supreme Court and those who have served there have always been partisan and, therefore, flawed. He makes this point by calling attention to a wide variety of hypocrisies. For example, if a Supreme Court Justice is supposed to be appointed by merit and talent alone, then why have there been dedicated seats to minorities and those of certain religions? After Thurgood Marshall, it was taken as fact that his seat should be filled by another African American, creating a situation where the one that was picked, Clarence Thomas of our court today, may not have had the experience or background that is usually expected of a Supreme Court Justice. A similar function existed for years around the Jewish and Catholic seats at the Supreme Court, calling into question if they were indeed the best people for the Supreme Court at the time. The quantity of examples along this line took me by surprise.
Pointing out flaws where you thought there were none
Zirin begins by focusing on how older famed judges such as Rehnquist, Brandeis, and Holmes had cases where their personal backgrounds and moral inclinations prompted them to rule in ways that had little bearing on legal precedent or the Constitution itself. This is a continued theme throughout the book, as Zirin writes a chapter for each separate Supreme Court Justice in office today, from Sotomayor to Scalia (who died right before the book was published). One encounters a series of fascinating vignettes and anecdotes about these important people that I had not heard before, and were often as entertaining as they were revealing.
The end result of this is bittersweet; I felt that I knew these impressive figures much better than I had before, yet I was also confronted with the fact that each of them, no matter how inspiring, tends to vote along their party line. Republican justices who blocked President Obama’s executive overreach were more than willing to give President W. Bush as much leeway as he wanted on the “War on Terror.” Similarly, Democratic justices repeatedly interpreted the Constitution loosely with regard to abortion and the rights of minorities. Regardless of where you stand on any of these issues, Zirin convincingly and bluntly points out how these various justices have contradicted themselves and their office by reading the Constitution in ways that don’t honor the document and established precedent so much as their own personal and party views of it.
By the end of the book, I felt better informed but also depressed. Such is the nature of the subject material. But it is only by examining flaws in the system like this that we are equipped with the knowledge we need to change them for the better. Another good reason to read this book is the interesting questions it prompts you to confront. For example, upon finishing the book, I thought long and hard about how Justices are selected and the necessity of the lifelong term. The goal of the lifelong term was to shield Justices from criticism and blowback from civilians and any other branch of government. Given how so many Justices now toe their party lines and are appointed by how closely they have done so since the beginning of their careers, I don’t think this is working as intended. A Supreme Court Justice who votes their conscience or holds staunchly to legal precedent is so rare as to be near nonexistent. So what then is the point of a lifelong term if it is just another political weapon to be sought on both sides of the aisle?
I could expand on that thought into a post of its own and, as I read more about the subject, I just might. But I think it is a strength of this book that it made me think more critically about the American Supreme Court system, and how to fix it. If your knowledge of the Judicial Branch is fairly limited and especially if you haven’t read about how it works since high school, I highly recommend Supremely Partisan. The legalese can be occasionally hard to sift through, but the entertaining stories of each judge and case Zirin explores is worth the price of admission if nothing else, and helps to keep the attention. Check it out!