Spotlight on the Nation's Highest Court ; Two New Books Home in on Supreme Court Justices, Past and Present, and How They Shape the Court They Serve

Article excerpt

David Souter, the famously reclusive Supreme Court justice, once warned that cameras would televise the most publicity shy branch of government's proceedings over his dead body. His fellow justices, however, appear more comfortable with public attention lately.

Most have sat down for television interviews and given public speeches in recent months. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has shown a particular willingness to lift the court's veil of mystery, releasing more same-day tape recordings of its oral arguments.

Authors of two new books on the court, journalist Jan Crawford Greenburg and law professor Jeffrey Rosen, have benefited from the court's greater openness - and so will their readers.

Greenburg, an ABC News legal reporter, interviewed nine justices for her book, Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court, a close examination of the Supreme Court justices that explores how every justice appointed since Sandra Day O'Connor wound up on the court and how they've acted since they got there. (Only John Paul Stevens, appointed by President Gerald Ford, gets short shrift.)

She fills this meticulously reported and well-written book with rich detail not available in contemporary news accounts. Readers may feel as if they're in the room as the decisions are made since she seems to have interviewed every person involved in each nomination.

Greenburg scooped up every last detail of the nominations - down to the instant messages Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s children exchanged on their computers after a White House official called looking for their dad.

You can hear conservatives self-flagellate themselves over the selection of Souter and Anthony Kennedy, source of the most disappointment among conservatives since President Eisenhower picked liberals Earl Warren and William J. Brennan Jr. in the 1950s.

Her book is generally sympathetic to conservatives and their worldview. Greenburg argues that Justice Clarence Thomas is wrongly caricatured as fellow conservative Antonin Scalia's puppet on the court. Instead, Greenburg suggests that it was often Thomas who won over Scalia to his side when he joined the court.

Kennedy is the one who comes off looking worst in this book. She skewers his indecision, "aura of pomposity," and what she views as absurd angling for the position of chief justice.

Greenburg offers particularly fresh insights about the two most recent selections. She explains why Sandra Day O'Connor surprised everyone by announcing her retirement in 2005 while William Rehnquist, the terminally ill chief justice, stayed on the court.

Greenburg suggests that Rehnquist essentially forced O'Connor, a close friend since their days together at Stanford Law School, off the court by saying he wanted to stay for another year and didn't want to have two vacancies in a single year. …