IT IS SO ORDERED by Warren Burger


A Constitution Unfolds
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 Former Chief Justice Burger offers a survey course on the level of a high-school history textbook as he sketches 14 controversies that have defined the US Constitution and the role of the Supreme Court. Burger's opening sentence announces that his book is ``in no sense intended as a serious, scholarly, or comprehensive study of constitutional law, but rather as a story for nonlawyers.'' But why shouldn't the man who for 17 years presided over the Supreme Court offer a ``serious'' interpretation? It's not as if he's a natural storyteller: His long paragraphs meander illogically, and his style is clunky (e.g., ``The Court held that the jugular was protected by the shield of the Constitution embodied in the Treaty Clause''). In addition, Burger lacks a gift for nuanced characterization. After assessing Thomas Jefferson as ``labyrinthine'' in complexity, he then dismisses the third president as a hypocritical, opportunistic, shortsighted ``political science generalist,'' a foe of the judiciary and, on occasion, of the Constitution itself. On the other hand, Chief Justice John Marshall, often viewed as an archconservative ``property judge,'' is treated here with reverence. Burger conjectures that had Marshall presided over the Dred Scott (1857) and Plessy (1896) cases, he would have cast enlightened, nonracist votes; indeed, claims the author, even FDR would have liked him. This haywire conservative revisionism ends, predictably, with Burger deploring the ``monster'' that national government has become. The book's best moments are the summaries of decisions in major Supreme Court cases, such as Marbury v. Madison (1803), in which Marshall proclaimed to the nation that the Supreme Court would review all challenges to the Constitution, and M'Culloch v. Maryland (1819), which upheld Congress's power to pass legislation. But such summaries are readily available in any law school bookstore. What's missing here is interpretation or, failing that, a good story. A golden opportunity to educate America on its greatest subject--missed.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-688-09595-X
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1995