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Heroes, Soldiers, Minimalists, and Mutes

by Cass R. Sunstein

Pub Date: Oct. 7th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-19-022267-3
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

A novel approach to analyzing the majority and dissenting opinions of the Supreme Court.

In this slender volume, prolific legal writer Sunstein (Law/Harvard Univ.; Choosing Not to Choose: Understanding the Value of Choice, 2015, etc.) presents an original way of looking at the decisional postures of Supreme Court justices by characterizing them as assuming one of four personae. Heroes are willing to take bold action to overturn statutes and customs in response to perceived constitutional mandates. Soldiers are more deferential to the orders of the people as expressed through their elected representatives. Minimalists are open to change but prefer to accomplish it through small, incremental steps, building slowly on precedent. Mutes will use technical doctrines to avoid committing the court to any decision until public attitudes or the political process have moved the underlying issue further. No justice adopts the same persona consistently; a justice may tend to heroics in cases involving affirmative action, for example, but act as a soldier where abortion rights are at issue. While Sunstein believes that no persona is superior in all instances, he persuasively argues a preference for what he calls a "Burkean minimalist" as the persona that will most often produce sound decisions. Along the way, he includes illuminating discussions of theories of constitutional interpretation, doubts about the legitimacy of heroes invoking “abstract ideas about liberty or equality as anti-democratic swords," and clashes among the personae as revealed in the court's opinions. Carefully reasoned and clearly explained, Sunstein's approach offers a more insightful way of analyzing the positions of individual justices than resorting to simplistic ideologies or interpretive theories like "original meaning," which the author shows are of limited utility at best.

While accessible to general readers with some familiarity with leading cases and justices of the past century, this discussion will be of interest largely to law students, attorneys, and SCOTUS junkies.