Supreme Decisions: Great Constitutional Cases and Their Impact

By Belknap, Michael R. | The Historian, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Supreme Decisions: Great Constitutional Cases and Their Impact


Belknap, Michael R., The Historian


Supreme Decisions: Great Constitutional Cases and Their Impact. By Melvin I. Urofsky. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012. Pp. xvi, 382. $49.00.)

Many constitutional historians (including this reviewer) first became excited about the field after reading Quarrels That Have Shaped the Constitution, a collection of essays edited by John Garraty that were originally published in 1964. Subsequent editions came out in 1975 and 1987, but it has now been more than a quarter of a century since the last one appeared. Melvin I. Urofsky, one of Garraty's students and today among the most distinguished scholars of American constitutional history, has set out to fill an increasingly obvious need. Unlike Garraty, however, Urofsky did not call on other scholars for assistance. He wrote every article in this collection himself.

As he acknowledges, not everyone will agree with his selection of cases. He has tried, he says, to include ones that "handle issues that not only were important in the past but still resonate today--issues of privacy, free speech, and race; treatment of women, Native Americans, and gays; and rights of people accused of crimes" (xvi). This effort to give his book contemporary relevance and appeal has resulted not only in the omission of cases that were once viewed as important and no longer are but also in the exclusion of a number that are still studied in constitutional law classes today. These include Cohens v. Virginia from the early National period, Ex parte McCardle from Reconstruction, and Dennis v. United States from the McCarthy era. One wonders if they failed to make the cut less because they lack continuing relevance than because the topics with which they deal are not sufficiently trendy.

Although one may quarrel with Urofsky's case selection, he deserves high marks for writing an excellent group of essays. …

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