Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, The Brethren (1979)
In our modern litigious society, people are always threatening to sue over incidents as petty as a scratched bumper in a supermarket parking lot to things as serious as sexual harassment and murder. For most people this threat means handing over aspects of their lives to some higher power. But the courts are made up of fallible people with their own quirks and pet peeves. And in Woodward and Armstrong's seven-year timeline of the Supreme Court, Supreme Court justices become much more than a signature at the end of an opinion – they become people.
Highlighting the Supreme Court terms from 1969 to 1976, the authors recount the transformation of the nation's highest court from the Warren court, which heard some of the most important First Amendment cases in America's history, to the first seven years of Warren Burger's court, which handled cases like the Watergate scandal and the Pentagon Papers.
Broken down into term lengths, the authors expose the inner workings of a court system that holds so much power over the American people, but is quite often a complete mystery. The court has escaped much public scrutiny because the Justices are appointed for life and not subject to periodic re-election. From Burger's first decree that the everything in the Supreme Court office be changed to be more fair – from the uniform chairs to more efficient office space – to his hard line policy to not overturn previous precedents that generally softened to allow for legislation like Cohen v. California, Burger's tenure in the Supreme Court shaped the future of the United States.
Although this book is mildly terrifying by pointing out the very structure of the U.S. judicial system is subject to the whims and wills of old men, it installs a certain amount of faith in these people, who toil over cases for hours on end until they lose their eyesight or ability to walk, because of the sheer effort and consideration they put into every decision. The opinions are not thrown together and then signed and filed. Every word is agonized over and rewritten to be purposefully vague or crystal clear. They don't adhere to any party line and are not required to vote the same way on any topic.
As a journalist, and more important an American citizen, this book shows the inner workings of our highest court and the painstaking detail that goes into the art of writing opinions. If nothing else, a journalist can develop a new appreciation for the craft of writing by reading what kind of rewrites Justices go through before publishing an opinion. But the reader also gets a crash course in the history of one of the most volatile times in our nation and the precedents that will forever define our politics, protest procedures and abortion rights.