Friday, October 21, 2011

Guest Review: Five Chiefs

Summary: When he resigned last June, Justice Stevens was the third longest serving Justice in American history (1975-2010)--only Justice William O. Douglas, whom Stevens succeeded, and Stephen Field have served on the Court for a longer time.

In Five Chiefs, Justice Stevens captures the inner workings of the Supreme Court via his personal experiences with the five Chief Justices--Fred Vinson, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts--that he interacted with. He reminisces of being a law clerk during Vinson's tenure; a practicing lawyer for Warren; a circuit judge and junior justice for Burger; a contemporary colleague of Rehnquist; and a colleague of current Chief Justice John Roberts. Along the way, he will discuss his views of some the most significant cases that have been decided by the Court from Vinson, who became Chief Justice in 1946 when Truman was President, to Roberts, who became Chief Justice in 2005.

Packed with interesting anecdotes and stories about the Court, Five Chiefs is an unprecedented and historically significant look at the highest court in the United States. -- Little, Brown

It's time for another great review from Booking Pap Pap! This time, he's discussing the book FIVE CHIEFS: A SUPREME COURT MEMOIR by John Paul Stevens.

FIVE CHIEFS, a memoir by John Paul Stevens, is an interesting and informative account of his time as a Supreme Court justice. Stevens was nominated to the Court by President Ford in 1975 and served until 2010 when he retired at age 90. Only William Douglas, the man Stevens replaced, and Stephen Fields served longer. 

FIVE CHIEFS is primarily a discussion of the office of the chief justice. Stevens briefly discusses the first twelve chief justices in the first chapter, covering the period from 1789 to 1946. He concludes this chapter by opining as to the five best chief justices from this twelve without really explaining why.

After describing the duties of the chief justice, Stevens then proceeds to discuss his experiences with the next five chief justices. He first met Chief Justice Fred Vinson when he served for one year as a clerk for Associate Justice Wiley Rutledge. Vinson was selected as chief justice by President Truman in 1946 and served until his death in 1953.

Next in line was Earl Warren who was named to the position of chief justice by President Eisenhower in 1953 and served until he retired in1969. Stevens contact with Justice Warren occurred when he argued a case before the Supreme Court in 1962.   

Stevens served as an associate justice under Warren Burger, William Rehnquist and John Roberts, Jr.  Warren Burger was appointed by President Nixon in 1969 and served until 1986 when he retired to serve as chairman of the Commission of the Bicentennial of the Constitution. William Rehnquist, an associate justice from 1972, was named to the chief justice post by President Reagan in 1986 and served until his death in 2005. Stevens served as the acting chief justice until John Roberts, Jr. was appointed by President George W. Bush later in 2005.

Justice Stevens provides both praise and criticism of each chief justice. It’s clear that of the chief justices he served under, he thought more highly of Roberts than he did of Burger or Rehnquist. Regarding associate justices he served with, his highest praise went to Thurgood Marshall and his highest criticism was directed toward Clarence Thomas.  

Stevens goes on to describe several key cases that each Supreme Court chief justice encountered during his tenure and provides some opinions on the decisions in those cases. Some of the more significant cases he commented on include racial segregation, one person-one vote, gender based discrimination, abortion and capital punishment. Stevens mentions the Bush/Gore recount issue without expressing any opinion of the outcome except that he considered the whole affair frivolous.  

Stevens writes about the dignity in the Supreme Court emphasizing that in spite of differing opinions among the judges a harsh word was never uttered. He also mentions several times the phrase “first among equals” to describe the chief justice. Even though the chief justice had responsibilities over the associate judges he had an equal vote in deciding cases. Stevens shares interesting stories on such items as the changes in the Court procedures over the years, stripes on Rehnquist’s robe sleeves, the rearrangement of the conference room, pre-trial handshakes, coffee breaks, holiday parties, spittoons and some of the unusual duties of the associate judges. It’s clear that Stevens enjoyed his time on the Court. In all Stevens makes some interesting historical points, injects some funny stories and addresses a lot of legal points - in some instances too much legalese for me.

I would recommend FIVE CHIEFS to anyone who has a specific interest in the Supreme Court. It is not a “tell all” story but a memoir presented in a most gentlemanly style.

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


Beth F said...

This sounds fascinating. I've edited quite a few books about the Supreme Court (law books) but haven't read much geared to the general public.

bermudaonion said...

This is an area I feel like I should have more interest than I do. I do have a friend who would probably love this book and I'll recommend it to him.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I've heard some good things about this book and am glad to hear BPP recommends it!

Anonymous said...

Oh very cool. My degree is in political science so this is an area I love. I think I'll be checking this out!

Anonymous said...

I am fascinated by the Supreme Court and all the power they hold. This looks like a memoir I'd really like. Great review :)