Book Check: "In the Balance: Law and Politics on the Roberts Court"

Title: In the Balance: Law and Politics on the Roberts Court

Rating: Five gavels out of five. But with a caveat: you have to care about the U.S. Supreme Court and politics.

Politics Play a Role on the Supreme Court? Yep a big role . . . but Not as Much You Think: John Roberts is a Reagan Republican, not a Tea Party Republican. But the Court is still fairly conservative. Sometimes, though, Anthony Kennedy really gets the conservatives' goat.

A Brief Synopsis: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan hate each other. That's the whole book. Just kidding. But they do not like each other, seriously. Also, politics inform many of the Court's constitutional decisions, both liberal and conservative.

Subtitle/Tagline: "Law and Politics on the Roberts Court"

Better Subtitle/Tagline: "The Supreme Court . . ." Nope, the book's subtitle is pretty much spot on.

Not So Brief "Plot" Synopsis: This is a non-fiction book about current events, so you kind of already know the "plot." But, also, you don't. Besides discovering that Roberts and Kagan like to take passive-aggressive shots at each other in public (oral argument, the Court's opinions) and in private, you also get other little gossipy tid-bits; but I'm not going to be a spoiler.

The book provides an interesting backdrop as to how we got to a Roberts Court, sketching in some detail the newer members of the Court -- Roberts, Alito, Sotomayor and Kagan -- biographies. Against that backdrop, Tushnet describes how law and politics have informed the Robert's Courts' decisions over the past eight years, with particular attention paid to abortion, gun control, campaign finance and business law decisions.

"Critical" Analysis: Don't take this book as simply an updated version of Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine. Tushnet, a former Supreme Court clerk himself and professor at Harvard Law School is playing with a different deck of intellectual cards than Toobin -- i.e., his analysis is much smarter. But that doesn't mean the book is a boring read with dense legal/academic prose.

Quite the opposite. Tushnet's special talent is being able to explain the complex constitutional and federal statutory decisions of the Supreme Court by stripping out the legal jargon and getting to the core of the case with a prose any educated layperson can understand. This is especially true in his chapter discussing campaign finance reform and Citizens United.The book's most significant contribution -- especially to lay readers -- is to show how politics and law intersect at the Supreme Court.

For example, the Second Amendment gun rights' decision in 2008, Heller, didn't "just happen." Tushnet tells the story how of conservative legal luminaries, as late as the early 1990s, didn't believe the Second Amendment could be interpreted to include an individual right to bear arms. Not seventeen years later, though, the Court's conservatives found that it could.

In sum, for anyone who wants to be minimally conversant about the Supreme Court and the concomitant politics surrounding it, Tushnet's book is a must read.

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