New York Times Magazine contributor Feldman (Law/Harvard Univ.; (The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, 2008, etc.) compares the careers and the constitutional visions of four of the most important Supreme Court justices ever.
Of Franklin Roosevelt’s nine Supreme Court appointments, four have had lasting influence. By the time he was appointed to the Court, Felix Frankfurter, the activist law professor, had already seeded the government with acolytes, making him the best connected man in Washington; Alabama Sen. Hugo Black, whose brief affiliation with the KKK emerged after his confirmation, busied himself reading history and suffering criticism of his early, amateurish opinions; Robert Jackson, whose nomination culminated in a remarkably swift rise within the administration, had already developed a reputation as a felicitous stylist; and William O. Douglas, the youngest justice ever confirmed, was Wall Street’s scourge as chair of the SEC. All sprung from childhood poverty. All revered Louis Brandeis, the liberal lion, and all firmly opposed the property-protecting doctrine of the Lochner-era Court. Committed New Dealers, all embraced liberal goals, and all were ferociously ambitious. Frankfurter aspired to the court’s intellectual leadership. Jackson burned to be Chief Justice. Only after many years did Black and Douglas abandon notions about the presidency. Broadly in agreement during FDR’s life, their intellectual paths diverged after his death, even as personal relations among them horribly deteriorated. Feldman neatly demonstrates how their careers and personal histories accounted for their mutual resentments and shaped their distinctive approaches to constitutional interpretation. Frankfurter’s judicial restraint, Black’s originalism, Jackson’s pragmatism and Douglas’s realism—four interpretive doctrines that continue to reverberate—are fleshed out in accessible discussions of important cases dealing with presidential power and civil rights. The process of how they put aside personal differences and individual philosophies to reach agreement in the historic Brown v. Board of Education is only part of the author’s revealing exploration.
An immensely readable history that goes behind the façade of our most august institution to reveal the flesh-and-blood characters who make our laws.