The U.S. Supreme Court: A Very Short Introduction (2nd edition)


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For 30 years, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Linda Greenhouse chronicled the activities of the U.S. Supreme Court and its justices as a correspondent for the New York Times. In this Very Short Introduction, she draws on her deep knowledge of the court's history and of its written and unwritten rules to show readers how the Supreme Court really works. Greenhouse offers a fascinating institutional biography of a place and its people-men and women who exercise great power but whose names and faces are unrecognized by many ...

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Jan 7, 2018

A Very Short Introduction To The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court considers and resolves legal issues of great moment in the United States but remains a mystery to many Americans. Linda Greenhouse's "The U.S. Supreme Court: A Very Short Introduction" (2012) offers an overview of the Supreme Court, its history and workings, and its place in American government. Greenhouse covered the Supreme Court for the New York Times for over 30 years and currently teaches at the Yale University Law School in addition to continuing to write about the Court. Her book is part of the "Very Short Introductions" series of Oxford University Press. The OUP offers the following description of the goal of the series. "Very Short Introductions can change the way you think about the things that interest you, and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Because of this, they have proven to be extremely popular with general readers, as well as students and their lecturers."

In addition to the overall purpose of the series, Greenhouse explains her own specific goals for the book.

"This book is not intended primarily as a work of history. Its aim is to enable readers to understand how the Supreme Court of the United States operates today. But while detailed knowledge of the Court's history is not required for that purpose, acquaintance with the Court's origins helps appreciate the extent to which the Supreme Court that we know today has been the author of its own history. From the beginning, it has filled in the blanks of Article III [of the Constitution] by defining its own power..... That process of self-definition continues today."

The emphasis of the Court's self-definition of its role as one of the three branches of the United States government pervades Greenhouse's succinct, thoughtful introduction to the Court. She begins with the Constitutional origins of the Court and with Chief Justice John Marshall's early decision that the Court had the power to review and invalidate legislation if the Court concluded it violated the Constitution. In subsequent chapters, the Court and the types of cases it decides, the Justices and the manner of their appointment, the functions of the Chief Justice, various approaches to Constitutional interpretation, the relationship of the Court to the Executive and Legislative branches of the government, the Court and public opinion, and the Court in an international context. It is a daunting task for a book of less than 100 pages.

For all its brevity, the book is highly useful and offers a good introduction to the Court with no pretension that it constitutes a full account. The book includes notes and a reading list that invite interested readers to learn more. The book includes short discussions of several controversial Court decisions which set out in simple terms the reasons for the underlying controversy. Given the size of the book, the author devotes considerable attention to two issues. First, Greenhouse discusses the Constitutional provision for life tenure for the Justices and discusses whether the purpose of this provision (insulation from political pressure) might better be served by an appointment for a lengthy but fixed number of years. The second issue which Greenhouse addresses in some detail is abortion. Greenhouse describes the background of the Court's 1973 decision in "Roe v. Wade" and the controversy it engendered. She then describes the 1992 decision in "Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey" in which the Court narrowly declined to overrule "Roe v. Wade." She examines the opinions in the latter decision for a discussion of how the Court viewed the questions of judicial integrity and the overruling of precedent. Greenhouse has written elsewhere in detail about abortion and the law.

Greenhouse's book fulfills admirably the goals of the "Very Short Introduction" series and her own stated goals for the book. Her "Very Short Introduction" to the Supreme Court will help readers in their understanding of the Court and of American government.

Robin Friedman

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