Monday, November 8, 2010

Guest Review: Scorpions

 Summary: A tiny, ebullient Jew who started as America's leading liberal and ended as its most famous judicial conservative. A Klansman who became an absolutist advocate of free speech and civil rights. A backcountry lawyer who started off trying cases about cows and went on to conduct the most important international trial ever. A self-invented, tall-tale Westerner who narrowly missed the presidency but expanded individual freedom beyond what anyone before had dreamed.

Four more different men could hardly be imagined. Yet they had certain things in common. Each was a self-made man who came from humble beginnings on the edge of poverty. Each had driving ambition and a will to succeed. Each was, in his own way, a genius.


They began as close allies and friends of FDR, but the quest to shape a new Constitution led them to competition and sometimes outright warfare. SCORPIONS tells the story of these four great justices: their relationship with Roosevelt, with each other, and with the turbulent world of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. It also serves as a history of the modern Constitution itself.
-- Twelve

Recently, my father (aka Booking Pap Pap) read SCORPIONS: THE BATTLES AND TRIUMPHS OF FDR'S GREAT SUPREME COURT JUSTICES by Noah Feldman. I had to laugh because while he was reading SCORPIONS, he kept telling me what an interesting book it was. And he appreciated that there was a nice mix of history as well as personal information about each man. He really, really enjoyed this one as you can see from his review:

During Franklin Roosevelt’s three plus terms as President of the United States he appointed eight Supreme Court Justices and named one Chief Justice. Four of those appointments made from 1937 to 1941 - Felix Frankfurter, Robert Jackson, Hugo Black, and William Douglas - have had a lasting influence on the Supreme Court.

SCORPIONS, by Noah Feldman, is an historical account of these men, their times and the important cases that arose from 1941 to 1953 when all four served on the Supreme Court. Feldman begins with Roosevelt’s frustration in trying to get his New Deal legislation through the Supreme Court which at the time favored free market, limited government and gave the states responsibility for regulating social and economic conditions. In response to the Court’s positions, Roosevelt put in place a plan to increase the size of the Court and stack it with pro-New Deal justices. Before any legislative action took place on his controversial “stacking plan”, one of the Justices changed his vote and the New Deal programs came into force. From that point on Roosevelt appointed men to the Supreme Court who were sympathetic toward his New Deal Programs.

Appointed to the Court in 1937, Hugo Black was a southern Senator from Alabama and former member of the Ku Klux Klan who aspired to the Presidency. His firsthand experiences of the devastation caused by the Depression made Black a strong Roosevelt supporter.

Felix Frankfurter, an immigrant Jew, became a Justice in 1939. He was a Harvard law professor and advisor to the President. He was recognized as the nation’s leading liberal intellectual and activist. Roosevelt considered him as the best qualified person for the job of perpetuating Roosevelt’s constitutional ideals.

William Douglas, named to the Court in 1939, was one of the most prominent and successful New Deal players. He made his name as Chairman of the SEC. Douglas, like Black, had presidential aspirations and Roosevelt actually considered him for Vice-President in 1940.

Robert Jackson, a New York country lawyer, was appointed to the Court in 1941. As solicitor general and attorney general, Jackson was Roosevelt’s most important legal advisor on World War II, particularly on U.S. neutrality. Jackson also took a leave from the Court to serve as chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. Jackson always aspired to the Chief Justice position but never achieved it.

These four men had much in common. They were all committed to Roosevelt’s liberal values, all opposed the Court’s rejection of the New Deal programs and all were extremely ambitious. In spite of these similarities, their constitutional interpretations were widely diverse. Frankfurter advocated judicial restraint, Jackson favored pragmatism, Black endorsed originalism and Douglas supported realism.

After an initial period in which these men’s interests were allied, the different approaches to constitutional interpretation caused their positions to eventually diverge to the point where they became enemies, each confident that their constitutional interpretation was the surest route to success for liberal causes.

Feldman devoted much of his book to the important cases that arose during the time these four served on the Court. Some of the more significant included Korematsu v. the U.S., a case that upheld the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II; Youngstown, a steel seizure case that defined the limits of Presidential power and Brown v. Board of Education, the case that struck down segregation. Through his detailed description of these cases, Feldman gives the reader a behind the scenes look at how the Court operated in an environment of petty resentment and diverging constitutional views. In particular, he provides an amazing account of the working of the Court in the Brown v. Board of Education where, in spite of all the resentment and dislike among Court Justices, they were able to issue a unanimous opinion.

Feldman describes how personal and career experiences shaped the constitutional thinking of four of the greatest Supreme Court Justices. His attention to detail provides an historic background that brings to life these four Justices. Feldman also provides an interesting glimpse into both the Roosevelt and Truman administrations.

SCORPIONS is a very readable book that gives the reader an up-close look at four people who made our laws and have had a tremendous influence on the Supreme Court. This is a fascinating book and I recommend it to anyone who has an interest in American history.

Thanks to Booking Pap Pap for his fantastic review and thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this book.

5 comments:

bermudaonion said...

I avoid books like this because I'm always afraid they'll be too dry and academic, but Booking Pap Pap makes this one sound so good! I'm glad to see it's readable.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Gosh, I didn't know about this book at all! I must read it! (I hate the title, but I assume it comes from J. Robert Oppenheimer's description of the Cold War as "two scorpions in a jar." However, living in Arizona, full of scorpions, the idea of them has even MORE unpleasant associations for me!) Nicely reviewed, thank you!

marthalama said...

Thanks to Booking Pap Pap for such a great review. This is not usually my style of book, more my husbands cup of tea. But I think we both enjoy this one.

Beth F said...

This is totally new to me. Thanks to Booking Pap Pap, I'm adding it to my list.

stacybuckeye said...

My husband enjoyed the audio of this one.