Kirkus Review on October 13, 2011
More than 170 former law clerks--and at least some of the Justices--have broken the Supreme Court's traditional silence; and the result is a searing account of the Court's inner workings from 1967 to 1975 that shows the Chief Justice to be a fool and quite possibly a scoundrel, that exposes the other Justices to ridicule and contempt, that casts doubt on the highest court as a judicious arbiter of anything. Whether or not this wholesale disrobing is a good thing, it was probably inevitable once Burger, newly installed as Chief, attempted to muzzle his law clerks and went on to flout the Court's rules of procedure--withholding his vote so he could join the majority and assign himself the writing of the opinion. In rebuttal, the other Brethren ganged up on him--determined not to let his unrepresentative views pass as the majority opinion, not to let his ineptly drafted opinions go on public record and become legal precedent. Ultimately they succeeded in stealing his majority: a dissent draft-opinion became the 7-1 choice. Its announcement stands, here, as the book's dramatic peak. What the reader sees, then, is a lawless court, ruled by the vanities and proclivities of men. Woodward and Armstrong would not, however, call it a Burger Court: with the ends increasingly polarized (Brennan and Marshall vs. Burger and Rehnquist), with the Chief a legal featherweight and a flagrant usurper, the nonideological craftsmen of the center--they contend--took control. This assessment is not entirely borne out by post-1975 rulings, many of them written by Rehnquist for the majority; but it is incidental to the book's impact. With every legal and extra-legal mo, explicated, with comings-and-goings and conversations recounted in creepy de tail ("The door to Stewart's inner office was open, and they heard someone come into the outer office. There was a moment of silence. . ."), it makes compulsive, unnerving, electric reading. Here is an elderly, intractable Hugo Black invoking a technicality to thwart the majority and bar innumerable Blackmun was dumbfounded. . . now he was a petitioners from the courts ("justice and had the same power"); here is Douglas, "never a man to procrastinate before wreaking havoc," sending a savage memo to the Chief (text provided); here is Stewart, haunted by the Sherlock Holmes case of "the dog that didn't bark," suspecting the Chief of "purposely leaving unanswered some crucial, but hidden, question." And, for comic relief, here are the annual (blue) "movie days." But only once, apropos of Douglas and two put-upon clerks, does the account become truly petty, and only very infrequently are thoughts imputed for which there is no plausible source. Dirty linen or not, most of this has to be believed--and it's dynamite.