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The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court - Jeffrey Toobin

This is an informative and engaging account of the recent history of the U.S. Supreme Court. Perhaps not a subject that holds 340 pages' worth of interest for the general public, but those who have an interest are almost certain to find this one worth their while.

The Nine takes the form of a narrative, starting in the Reagan years and ending in 2007; Toobin discusses major cases that reached the Court during that time, as well as the individual justices' decision-making processes and personalities. Confirmation hearings and the selection processes for justices in the Clinton and Bush II administrations get a lot of attention, as does the infamous case of Bush v. Gore.

Toobin has a strong narrative style and the knack for storytelling you see in the best journalists, resulting in a more entertaining read than I expected. The character sketches are also well-done, showing us the distinct people behind the judicial opinions--you'll never get Breyer and Souter mixed up again! The amount of legal information included is just right for a broad readership: enough that an intelligent person with no legal training can understand the cases, but not so much as to bore the lawyers in the audience. In part this is because Toobin's primary interest is in the political factors influencing the justices' decisions: both policy preferences and their perceptions of public opinion and the role of the Court.

This is as good a place as any to mention Toobin's politics. He is left-leaning, but evenhanded; he's no politico trying to twist everything to make his party look best. I'm guessing if you won't listen to NPR because it's too liberal for you, you'll feel the same about this book, but otherwise you should be fine.

The thing that confused me most while reading this book was its organization; the chapter titles are strangely vague, as if Toobin's afraid of giving something away (though the book is divided into four "parts," they aren't named at all), and while mostly chronological it seems a bit scattershot at times, particularly in the beginning. But what gives me pause looking back is the lack of attribution; as Toobin explains at the end, the book is based primarily on interviews conducted on a not-for attribution basis. The trouble is that he often discusses justices' personal feelings, or how they came to particular decisions, without letting readers know whether he gained this information from personal interviews, secondhand sources, or speculation. Information gathered from public sources is cited in the bibliography at the end.

But keeping in mind that some of the justices might dispute their portrayals--no one is drawn in an entirely complimentary light--this was certainly worth my time as an entertaining way to learn about the inner workings of the Supreme Court and the people who make it up. If you're interested, best get your hands on it before it's too out-of-date!