Review: The Nine

The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin

This is the penultimate book I have to read for my political science course. I enjoyed it so much that I may talk to the professor about adding it instead of simply recommending it to the other political science course of his I take. It would be much more beneficial than the reading currently used for that class, but I digress.

The Nine is a portrait of the Supreme Court from the Reagan administration to the 2008 election. It argues that the personalities of the Supreme Court justices, rather than politics or law, controls the Court. Thus, it deals mostly with the justices you heard about during the 1990s–Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor, David Souter, and William Rehnquist, as well as John Roberts and Samuel Alito, Jr.

In this regard, The Nine succeeds. It’s full of intriguing stories about all of the justices, woven in and out of the basic narrative that goes linearly through several important cases, including Bush v. Gore, which makes up the middle of the book. We learn about the inner workings of the Supreme Court, especially how Rehnquist was a breath of fresh air compared to the Chief Justice that preceded him. Each justice’s life prior to appointment is covered fairly quickly in order to get to the meat of their judicial lives and anything that may affect their judgement. These stories are entertaining and humanize the justices. It’s easy to giggle at Kennedy’s bombastic legal language and feel the great tragedy of O’Connor being forced to hand over a crucial appointment to George W. Bush in order to take care of her ailing husband–who soon goes beyond her capacity to care for.

Indeed, the book spends a lot of time on O’Connor. Toobin finds that, during her tenure, she was the center of the Court, committed to compromise and practical solutions. We watch her frustration grow as the Republican Party which appointed her evolves into something different than what she believes. It is by these explorations of the justices’ personalities and characters that the reader can then understand their legal styles. Law, as I’ve been learning this semester, is infinitely messy. A justice’s job is to reign the chaos in line with the views of the public. The only problem is, are the views of the public the same as what the justices think are the views of the public?

As I’ve mentioned, Bush v. Gore is covered in great detail. Toobin treats it as an experience that showed the absolute worst traits of the Court and the justices. We see the convoluted legal system trip over itself and be used for less than honorable means by both political parties, and the justices hastily trying to right a situation that they may not have the jurisdiction to right. Just like the case itself, the section of the book devoted to Bush v. Gore is hard going. It can be frustrating and depressing to wallow in a very bad period in the Supreme Court’s legacy for so long. I had great trouble picking the book back up during the pages devoted to Bush v. Gore.

This is a trait shared by too many of the cases. It’s harder to get back into The Nine when you have to dive back into a legal case rather than an entertaining story about Scalia’s behavior. While this is much more accessible than a lot of the political science books I’ve been reading this semester, it’s still not the most accessible read. While Toobin manages to keep a pretty snappy pace concerning the cases during the first half of the book, he slows down around Bush v. Gore. Keep my bias in mind, though–I’ve been reading more nonfiction than I’m used to this semester, and I’m getting a little burnt out.

Bottom line: A mostly entertaining exploration of the Supreme Court via the personalities of the justices, The Nine nevertheless is slowed down by a lengthy and frustrating section dealing with Bush v. Gore and can’t quite make the legal cases as interesting as the times and tribulations of the justices themselves.

I bought this book from my college bookstore.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Nine

  1. Thanks for this review, I’ve seen this one around and was semi-intrigued but your review definitely allowed me to be even MORE interested. I always like to read about politics, and even though the Bush v. Gore stuff will probably annoy me, I’m still thinking I’ll try out the book for the rest of it. 🙂

    • Feel free to skip around in that section- it’s nice to see both the good and bad sides of the justices, but it’s just a little too much. I didn’t mention the afterword, but I recommend skipping it as well. It’s completely superfluous. I hope you enjoy it!

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