CLOSED CHAMBERS by Edward P. Lazarus


The First Eyewitness Account of the Epic Struggles Inside the Supreme Court
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Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s tart description of Supreme Court deliberations—“nine scorpions in a bottle”—has seldom seemed more apt than in this scathing tell-all screed about the Rehnquist Court from Lazarus (Black Hills/White Justice, 1991), now an L.A. federal prosecutor. As a clerk of former Justice Harry Blackmun in the 1988—89 term, Lazarus came to feel that infighting between its conservative and liberal divisions had “corroded [its] institutional culture and driven the Justices to disregard the principles of decision-making—deliberation, integrity of argument, self-restraint—that separate the judicial function from the exercise of purely political power.” He focuses on the Court’s decisions on capital punishment, race relations, and abortion to demonstrate how its comity has become strained. During this time, the politicization of the confirmation process, as evidenced in the Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas nominations, was mirrored in the Court’s chambers’sometimes in subtle ways (Sandra Day O’Connor was believed to have stopped joining William Brennan in majority opinions for having tricked her in an unnamed case), sometimes in argument (a shoving match between a conservative and liberal clerk). Only other participants can confirm Lazarus’s sensational charges (e.g., that clerks were ceded unwarrantably large roles in crafting Court opinions, and that conservative “cabalists” manipulated Anthony Kennedy into early votes in death penalty appeals because of his reluctance to cast the deciding vote to ensure an execution). His admitted liberalism can be glimpsed, as in his invariable depiction of liberals as “scrupulous,” “compassionate,” and the like. But his analysis of Court opinions is even-handedly critical. Conservatives, prodded by the brilliant but nasty Antonin Scalia, pushed states— rights at every turn. Octogenarian liberals (Blackmun, Brennan, and Thurgood Marshall) fell to name-calling and hypocrisy in abandoning principle to gain victory. Today’s badly splintered justices, he claims, no longer speak as one institutional voice. This memoir’s revelations—based on reporting as well as personal experience—may obscure its less controversial but more thoughtful analysis of the Rehnquist Court’s poisonous “politics of certainty.” (8 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-8129-2402-9
Page count: 576pp
Publisher: Times/Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998