A Dignified, Inside Look at the Supreme Court-And More Than a Few Surprises

By Marder, Nancy S. | Judicature, January/February 2012 | Go to article overview

A Dignified, Inside Look at the Supreme Court-And More Than a Few Surprises


Marder, Nancy S., Judicature


A dignified, inside look at the Supreme Court-and more than a few surprises Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir, by John Paul Stevens. Little Brown. 2011. 304 pages. $24.99

Justice John Paul Stevens' Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir offers insights aboutthe U.S. Supreme Court that will be of great interest to the legal community and the layperson alike. The book, written by a former Supreme Court Justice who served in that position for almost 35 years, gives the reader a window into the workings of the Court that cannot be found elsewhere. He explains many Court practices and their origins. He also gives the Supreme Court a human face by focusing on five chief justices and assessing their contributions to the law and the Court.

One striking feature of Justice Stevens' remarkable career is that he had a professional connection to five chief justices. The "five chiefs" include Fred Vinson, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts Jr. Justice Stevens was a law clerk to Justice Wiley Rutledge in 1947-1948 and met Fred Vinson, who was the Chief Justice. Justice Stevens argued a case before the Supreme Court in 1962 when Earl Warren was the Chief Justice, and Justice Stevens served as an Associate Justice from 1975-2010, during which time Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts Jr. served as Chief Justices.

Justice Stevens' focus on five chiefs not only allows him to assess their contributions, but also to offer his own recollections and experiences. Although Justice Stevens asks the reader to "tolerate" his autobiographical comments, they are really the heart of the book. They allow the reader to feel as if he or she is having a fireside chat with Justice Stevens. The organizing device of five chiefs allows Justice Stevens to tell his own story, without having to focus on himself for an entire book. This structure is in keeping with his modest demeanor.

Justice Stevens explains to the reader that although a "chief justice" has additional duties compared to an associate justice, he has only one vote and is really a "first among equals." The additional duties are both judicial (presiding over oral argument and the justices' conferences) and non-judicial (overseeing the Supreme Court building and serving as the face of the Supreme Court to visiting foreign dignitaries]. Different chief justices had different strengths that they brought to the job and Justice Stevens offers his assessment of the five chiefs whose lives intersected with his.

In Justice Stevens' view, Chief Justice Burger's strengths were in presiding over oral argument and making improvements to the Court and its practices. For example, Chief Justice Burger altered the layout of the courtroom bench-from straight to angled. It is a seemingly small change, but it was significant to the justices. It allowed them to see and hear each other during oral argument. Today's very active bench might not be possible but for the change that Chief Justice Burger introduced during his tenure as chief justice. Although Justice Stevens appreciated such improvements, he faulted Chief Justice Burger for allowing the justices' conferences to run too long, failing to give a fair presentation of the facts of the case at conference, and interrupting other justices when he remembered a point he had forgotten to make.

In contrast, Justice Stevens gives higher marks to both Chief Justices Rehnquist and Roberts for efficiency in the courtroom and the conference room. As Justice Stevens observes, Chief Justice Rehnquist was such a strict adherent to efficiency in the courtroom that he would interrupt a lawyer, even if the lawyer was midsentence, as soon as the red light went on indicating that the lawyer's time had expired. Chief Justice Roberts is willing to give the lawyers a little more time, especially because he presides over such an active bench that lawyers do not always have a chance to make their arguments.

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