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Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir by John…

Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir

by John Paul Stevens

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I was hoping for a bit more from this book. I have tremendous respect for Justice Stevens and his work, I think the Supreme Court is a less interesting institution without the perspective he brought to its deliberations, and I've been looking forward to reading his memoir for quite some time. Unfortunately much of the book isn't really a memoir, but more a somewhat casual history of the Supreme Court and the men who have led it, combined with an often-in-the-weeds discussion of various cases handled during each chief's tenure.

The parts of this book that are personal in nature or where Stevens analyzes the changing Court practices and habits of each chief justice since Vinson are excellent, even if they do seem a bit stream-of-consciousness at times (the book might have benefited mightily from a slightly heavier hand from the editors). More recollections or anecdotes from Stevens about his relationships with the various justices with whom he served would have been most welcome, even if he had limited those to justices not currently on the bench. We get so little behind-the-scenes information about the Court's practices that Stevens' account of the inter-justice dynamics, the way the Court has changed over time, &c., can't help but be interesting.

It's the surveys of various cases that get to be a bit much, even for me (and I listen to Supreme Court oral arguments for fun). There's far too much, and often there just doesn't seem enough rationale for including a particular case or line of cases. Less of that (or at least a much tightly-edited selection) and more of the other would have made this a much better read. ( )
1 vote JBD1 | Apr 24, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I am more than a little late to serve as an early reviewer for Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir, by John Paul Stevens, which I obtained based upon that commitment back in 2011. Still, guilt eventually inspired me to read it through, after much procrastination and several false starts. Now that I finally did my duty, albeit a long overdue one, I really do not know what to make of this odd little book.
Five Chiefs seems intended as a kind of intimate history of the Supreme Court during the tenure of Justice John Paul Stevens, who served a lengthy term on the bench from his appointment by President Gerald Ford in 1975 until his retirement in 2010. After a whirlwind chapter that takes the reader through the key moments in the history of the Supreme Court by way of its first twelve chief justices, the bulk of the rest of the book – reflecting the title – is structured by chapters named for each of the five Chief Justices that Stevens served with on the Court: Fred Vinson, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts. I used the word “intended” deliberately in the first sentence of this paragraph, for it is never really clear what this book is supposed to be. It is too brief for a history of the Supreme Court, too superficial for a study of constitutional law, too Spartan to pretend to be biographical of the named justices, and too parsimonious with detail to be an autobiography. Moreover, if it is really a memoir, as the subtitle insists, then it is a very lean one indeed.
To my mind, Five Chiefs is a rather lightweight but fond anecdotal accounting of the people and events encountered in the three and a half decades the author served as an Associate Justice, told in a respectful, collegial style that is friendly both to the Court and to his fellow justices. Yet, here and there the narrative is unexpectedly punctuated with a discussion of critical Court decisions, which while promising at first frequently disappoints, largely because the greater context is conspicuous in its absence. A legal scholar or member of the judicial elite could easily evaluate his comments and the attendant ramifications; for the rest of us there is only Google.
Far more paragraphs and pages are devoted to matters that may seem trivial to the audience, even if they did not to the author, such as the way offices are assigned to members, or even the unfortunate position of a conference table after a meeting room is remodeled. But to be fair it is not all superficial stuff: Stevens is signally affronted when during the Reagan Administration the swearing-in ceremony of justices is relocated from the Supreme Court Building to the White House, which he views as a consequential if symbolic violation of the separation of powers of the three branches of government. Moreover, he is singularly outraged by Reagan’s comments at the investiture of Justice Anthony Kennedy. Stevens sternly notes that: “. . . the president participated with remarks that welcomed his new appointee as a judge who would follow the law rather than make it up. I thought the president’s remarks were both offensive and inappropriate and therefore decided not to attend similar ceremonies at the White House in the future.” [p207] Later in the text, we learn of Stevens’ warm approval when President Obama moves these ceremonies back to their traditional home at the Supreme Court Building.
This slender volume often reveals more by what is not said or what is subtly hinted at. While emphasizing friendships formed, traditions of respect and decorum among the justices, and never abandoning the collegial tone, it is manifestly clear that Stevens silently objects when Rehnquist adds gold stripes to his robe upon promotion to Chief Justice, and he is just as quietly relieved when Roberts desists from that practice. He does make the point that while the various Courts are known to history by the Chief Justices, in fact every time one seat changes hands an entirely new Court is manifested, a critical reminder that each appointment bears great significance. Stevens notes, almost in passing, that much more attention was devoted in confirmation hearings for the nomination of Rehnquist to Chief Justice, a sitting Associate Justice, than to the nomination of Antonin Scalia who took the vacated Rehnquist Associate Justice seat. There is no hint that Stevens objected to Scalia, but it is loudly unsaid that he felt quite differently when the brilliant liberal Thurgood Marshall was replaced by the middling Clarence Thomas, an ultra-conservative whose votes tipped the balance of the Court in a most unfortunate direction. Stevens is clearly distraught not only by rulings that seemed to undo more than a half century of evolving jurisprudence in areas such as civil rights, the death penalty and the Second Amendment, but more significantly by the decision that denied a legitimate electoral recount and thereby made George W. Bush President, as well as the one that delivered what he clearly sees as a wrong turn in campaign financing reform in the since much-maligned Citizens United ruling.
The tenure of John Paul Stevens seems to correspond in some ways to the transformation of the Republican Party from a bigger tent to the almost exclusive province of the right. When Stevens, a solid business-friendly Republican justice was appointed to the bench by the Republican President Gerald Ford, there were plenty of moderate and even liberal Republicans, a brand that has virtually gone extinct. Hardly a political liberal as most would define it, as evidenced by his own votes on the Court, Stevens nevertheless represented a time-honored tradition that cherished the rights of Americans under the law and always put politics in second place to jurisprudence. When asked a few years ago if he still identified as a Republican, Stevens famously declined comment.
Five Chiefs is probably not a book for everyone, and I have to admit I give it less than stellar marks overall, but it contains elements that make me glad I read it. The “Appendix” contains the full text of the United States Constitution and its Amendments, something that clearly defined Stevens’ life and career and something that every American should probably read, especially in these polarized days when what our central founding document truly contains is often wildly misstated. As for Stevens, at this writing he still walks among us at ninety-five years old. His book, warts and all, characterizes a tradition that we should well cherish and a dedication to justice we should well celebrate.

http://regarp.com/2015/12/29/review-of-five-chiefs-a-supreme-court-memoir-by-joh... ( )
  Garp83 | Dec 29, 2015 |
I read after completing Sonia Sotomayor's memoir and found Steven's approach to the history of the Court through his eyes and thoughts very dry and academic, ultimately uninspiring. It's not a well-told story. ( )
  Gracelovsbks | May 24, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
John Paul Stevens, long serving and now retired Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, offers a unique memoir of the highest court in the land. In "Five Chiefs," he offers glimpses of the Court gleaned from the many responsibilities of his life in the law: law clerk, practicing attorney, lower federal court judge, associate justice, and, finally, the "second among equals" as the longest serving associate justice on the Court.

In some ways, Stevens' recollections seem like an almost endless string of stories and anecdotes offered by a well-informed dinner party guest. This is not meant in any disparaging way, but rather notes that the book is not really a comprehensive memoir. Instead, it is an appealing and polite glimpse of the Supreme Court that offers a knowledgeable look "behind the curtain."

The result is that the stories related by Stevens, which date throughout the history of the Court but which focus on the eras marked by the five most-recent Chief Justices, provide a powerful sense of the ethos of the Court. While Stevens has comments on many opinions of the Court, including his disagreements with other justices, it is clear that there is a basic civility and like-mindedness among those who serve on the highest court.

More than this, it also becomes clear that it is within the Chief Justice's power to shape not only how the Court functions, but what its general ethos will be. Each of the five Chiefs described by Stevens sets a different tone for the Court, though the two most recent are noted for different ways that they espoused efficiency in how the Court handled its business. (I think it's fair to say that Stevens displays more affection and appreciation for John Roberts than for William Rehnquist.)

The most intriguing part of the book, though, may be the perspective Stevens gains when he becomes the most senior justice on the Court, which gave him particular responsibilities. When the Chief Justice votes with the minority, it is the senior associate justice who assigns which of those in the majority will author the Court's opinion. And, after Rehnquist's sudden death, it was Stevens, as senior justice, who fulfilled the Chief Justice's responsibilities until Roberts was appointed by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate.

While those with an interest, but little knowledge, of the Supreme Court could learn much from Stevens' book, these same readers will likely find the shorthand identifications of certain Court cases and opinions, sometimes by name only, frustrating. Perhaps this book will only be appreciated by those familiar with Constitutional Law or well versed in the history of the Court. But those willing to look up the cases, or simply skim over them, will be rewarded by seeing how the Supreme Court functions so differently from most political and government institutions. ( )
  ALincolnNut | Feb 23, 2013 |
Associate Justice Steven's memoir, Five Chiefs, was a short memoir from his time on the court, which covered a span of five chief justices.

If anything, I think the book could have been a bit longer. Justice Steven's treatment of his personal experiences both on and off the court were very enjoyable, but when it came to the various legal issues he discussed, I often felt like more explanation of the underlying principles was needed. I think Stevens at times assumed a tad too much prior legal knowledge from his readers.

Overall though the book was very enjoyable, and I'd recommend is highly.
  AdamRackis | Oct 2, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 031619980X, Hardcover)

When he resigned last June, Justice Stevens was the third longest serving Justice in American history (1975-2010)--only Justice William O. Douglas, whom Stevens succeeded, and Stephen Field have served on the Court for a longer time.

In Five Chiefs, Justice Stevens captures the inner workings of the Supreme Court via his personal experiences with the five Chief Justices--Fred Vinson, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts--that he interacted with. He reminisces of being a law clerk during Vinson's tenure; a practicing lawyer for Warren; a circuit judge and junior justice for Burger; a contemporary colleague of Rehnquist; and a colleague of current Chief Justice John Roberts. Along the way, he will discuss his views of some the most significant cases that have been decided by the Court from Vinson, who became Chief Justice in 1946 when Truman was President, to Roberts, who became Chief Justice in 2005.

Packed with interesting anecdotes and stories about the Court, Five Chiefs is an unprecedented and historically significant look at the highest court in the United States.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:47 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Former Justice Stevens discusses the accomplishments of the earliest Chief Justices and the role of Chief Justice, profiles each of the Chief Justices he knew personally and their most important cases, and describes his relationship with each.

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