Supreme Conflict:

I just finished reading Jan Crawford Greenburg's book Supreme Conflict, and I thought it was great. I really enjoyed the chapters that discuss the earlier rounds of nominations, such as O'Connor, Kennedy, and Souter, and how she uses those stories to provide the narrative backstory for the response to the Miers nomination. I don't know anything at all about Greenburg's personal legal philosophy, but I appreciated in reading the book that she certainly understood conservative legal philosophy in a very sophisticated and sympathetic way, so that she was able to explain the historical narrative in an accurate and compelling way. In this sense, it is much more sophisticated than The Brethren, to which it frequently has been compared. The Brethren is really quite dated by now too.

A few things that stood out to me as especially interesting. First, although Clarence Thomas's independence and intellectual leadership have been long apparent to most anyone except many journalists and law professors, Greenburg's research and rendition of this story is extremely interesting. Second, the the book paints a relatively unflattering image of Justice O'Connor as extremely thin-skinned and as being unable to separate her personal ego from her public obligations as a Justice. Third, I found very ineresting Greenburg's observation that there were ample warnings at the time of Kennedy's nomination that he would turn out to be unreliable by the standards of those who nominated him, so that no one should have been surprised at how matters eventually unfolded. Fourth, her rendition of the Souter nomination reads almost more as a comedy than a tragedy--the process and outcome was so farcical that it would be absurd to think that it would have been anything but random chance that Souter would have turned out to have been a Justice suitable to conservatives, so Greenburg hardly even wastes any ink suggesting that conservatives could have seriously been surprised or disappointed by how Souter has turned out. Overall, Greenburg's tale is how the combination of politics and personalities tled to the nomination of these three Justices, who came to disappoint the Presidents who appointed them.

In the book all of these points seem quite compelling. Of course, all of this depends on Greenburg's accuracy about the underlying facts. I am aware of at least one anecdote in the book that is a touch inaccurate in the details, although right in the basic point (it is also a minor story, so the accuracy of the precise details may not be as essential). But she seems to be very careful and I haven't heard any serious complaints about the accuracy of her story. The book seems really well-done and well-researched.

The book has a great narrative arc too, as Greenburg basically builds to the climactic event, which is the conservative uprising against the Miers nomination, and how decades of disappointing Supreme Court nominations laid the groundwork for that particular event. Greenburg also predicts that Roberts and Alito will succeed where earlier nominations failed in reshaping the Court, in that they have the personalities and intellectual force that prior appointments lacked (O'Connor, Kennedy, and Souter lacking the intellectual force and Scalia and Thomas lacking the personality attributes), a provocative hypothesis. Finally, it is an exceedingly well-written book, a real page-turner that I read in a couple of days. So it is a perfect book for spring break reading if you have yours coming up soon.

Perhaps other readers of the VC are less enthusiastic than I am, but I recommend it highly.


It occurred to me after I published this that my distinction between comedy and tragedy regarding Souter's nomination may not be correct. Remember--I'm an economist by background, not a literature maven. But as I recall, a comedy typically has a happy ending, which is most certainly not the case here from the perspective of those who backed Souter's nomination. So my use is intended more colloquially, just to characterize the farcical and slapstick nature of the process that generated the nomination. Thus, it doesn't seem to be a tragedy either, in that there was no reason to believe that matter could or should have worked out otherwise.

Please feel free to provide the correct term in the Comments.