A concise civics handbook that focuses a spotlight on the House's design and where its leadership does not measure up.




In the third volume in the Fundamentals of American Government series, political writer Spieler (co-author: Selecting a President, 2012) takes us on a well-organized tour of the U.S. House of Representatives and introduces the institution's inner workings and history.

The author throws into stark relief the shallowness of much news reporting about the blockages caused by bipartisanship in the House. Spieler helps enrich understanding of national-level policy debates in two ways. First, he shows the degree to which the functioning of the House is under tight control of the majority party through the speaker and the Rules Committee. Second, he draws out comparisons and differences with the Senate, where rules and procedures—such as the filibuster and supermajority vote thresholds—protect the minority. The author also provides a blow-by-blow account of the political combat and legislative maneuvering that secured the passage of President Barack Obama’s health care plan, which exemplifies how the House’s structure and rules shape debate and policy outcomes. The speaker of the House, a constitutionally defined function, is “usually” the leader of the majority party. He or she decides the agenda, and that party's control is exercised through the Rules Committee, where—unlike every other House Committee, which “roughly mirrors” the makeup of the full House—the majority party enjoys a 9-4 majority. This committee, writes Spieler, “enables the leadership of the majority party…to tightly control the manner in which legislation is debated, amended, and voted in the chamber.” Every bill presented is accompanied by its own rule. Tracing the evolution of House procedures from the era of segregation, the author shows how the Democratic Study Group worked to reform the institution. With its work completed, the group dissolved. But then came Newt Gingrich, ushering in a new phase of partisanship.

A concise civics handbook that focuses a spotlight on the House's design and where its leadership does not measure up.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-250-04036-7

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Sept. 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2015

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Provocative reading for anyone concerned about the intersection of race and capital punishment.



The story of the Supreme Court decision McCleskey v. Kemp (1987), which underscores “the lingering racial and socioeconomic inequalities endemic to capital punishment in the United States.”

In 1978 in Atlanta, Georgia, Warren McCleskey, an African-American, was arrested for killing a white police officer during a furniture store robbery. After years of litigation, writes Maratea (The Politics of the Internet: Political Claims-making in Cyberspace and How It’s Affecting Modern Political Activism, 2014, etc.), his death penalty sentencing was upheld by the Supreme Court in a decision that overlooked “compelling empirical data suggesting that Georgia’s death process was replete with systemic racial bias.” McCleskey was executed in 1991. In this thoughtful and disturbing account, the author traces the story of the case. He argues not that McCleskey was innocent but that he was sentenced to death under a system in which killers of white people were four times more likely as killers of blacks to be sentenced to death. The latter assertion, made by McCleskey’s lawyers, was based on a “detailed and peer-reviewed” study of 2,500 Georgia murder cases by University of Iowa law professor David C. Baldus. He concluded that all individuals convicted of murdering whites were far more likely to receive the death penalty. In its 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the defense failed to show evidence of deliberate bias by law officials and dismissed the data on disparities in sentencing as inevitable in the criminal justice system. Noting that the decision “affirmed institutionalized racial disparities” in the capital punishment system, Maratea examines the force of “old habits of mind and racial attitudes” going back to the Civil War era. He finds that “capital punishment has borne a close resemblance to lynching in Georgia, where more extralegal executions of black Americans occurred than in any other state.” As lynchings declined in the 20th-century South, “the infliction of the death penalty by the courts increased,” according to historian William S. McFeely.

Provocative reading for anyone concerned about the intersection of race and capital punishment.

Pub Date: Feb. 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4798-8860-3

Page Count: 224

Publisher: New York Univ.

Review Posted Online: Dec. 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2019

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The author’s consistently absorbing commentary on a wide variety of legal cases will require close attention by readers, but...



The retired Supreme Court justice chronicles his impressive life story, including his 34-year tenure with the court.

Born in 1920, Stevens (Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution, 2014, etc.) recounts his privileged upbringing, early law career, and lower-court experience before providing nearly 400 pages of year-by-year decision-making as a Supreme Court justice. A Republican appointed by President Gerald Ford, Stevens transcended the party ideology of many court colleagues in order to work together with those appointed by Democratic presidents. Despite the conventional wisdom of court chroniclers who identify justices as “conservative” or “liberal,” the author’s majority opinions and dissents cannot be easily pigeonholed. He candidly shares his thought processes on hundreds of cases, often openly criticizing his fellow justices for their lack of legal acumen and/or lack of compassion. Stevens is frequently critical of justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas for the refuge they have sought in the theory of originalism. Refreshingly, though, the author never attacks his fellow justices in a personal, gossipy manner, and he discusses his varying degrees of friendship with each of them. Stevens theorizes that the dynamics of the court—and the nature of the rulings—undergo transformation every time a new justice joins. As a result, the author presents brief sections about the immediate impact of each new justice during his 34 years, ending with his successor in 2010, Elena Kagan. Although Stevens reveres the court’s reputation as a nonpartisan arbiter, he realizes that reputation has never fully recovered from the politically tinged 5-4 ruling in 2000 that handed the presidency to George W. Bush rather than Al Gore. The author also offers searing commentary on cases involving abortion rights, gun control, wrongful convictions in criminal courts, campaign finance, and many other ongoing societal issues.

The author’s consistently absorbing commentary on a wide variety of legal cases will require close attention by readers, but the payoff is worth it.

Pub Date: May 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-316-48964-5

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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