JUDICIAL ENIGMA by Tinsley E. Yarbrough


The First Justice Harlan
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A serviceable but bloodless biography of the Supreme Court justice who penned some of the most celebrated judicial dissents of the 19th century.

Yarbrough (Political Science/East Carolina Univ.; John Marshall Harlan, 1992, etc.) sketches the complex, contradictory life of the Kentucky Republican who in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) eloquently disputed the Court's 'separate but equal' doctrine. Harlan's 34-year tenure on the court (18771911) was notable for his willingness to cast the sole dissenting vote in major civil rights cases in the aftermath of the Civil War. In ringing, righteous prose, Harlan was the first justice to argue that the Bill of Rights should apply to the states and US territories (not just to the federal government) and, in the famous case of Lochner v. New York (1905), that states are entitled to pass legislation protecting the health and safety of workers. But Yarbrough shows that Harlan's judicial record even in civil rights cases was 'spotty' and unpredictable, his inspiring dissents often marred by ethnocentric attitudes and gross generalizations. The author also examines Harlan's troubling private life, focusing on the justice's insensitive treatment of both his alcoholic brother and mulatto half-brother, his chronic insolvency, and his tendency to adapt his stance to shifting political winds. But Yarbrough simply doesn't have enough material here: He often speculates on how the justice's private life affected his work but offers little concrete proof of a connection. He also has little to say about Harlan's relationship with his colleagues on the Court. Worse, Yarbrough summarizes instead of analyzing many of the Court's major opinions: Lochner, one of the most influential cases in the Supreme Court's jurisprudence, is discussed in a mere page and a half.

After this unenlightening account, Harlan remains an enigma. (16 halftones, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-19-507464-5
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1995


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