On March 29, 1989, at a time when many of his fellow first-year law students were beginning to prepare for the spring semester’s looming examinations, Barack Obama paid a visit to the office of eminent constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe. Obama had not dropped by to brush up for a test. In fact, he had yet even to enroll in an introductory constitutional law course, a gratification Harvard Law School denies its students until the second year of study. Obama’s call was purely extracurricular: He wanted to discuss Tribe’s academic writings.
Justices and Journalists: The U.S. Supreme Court and the Media By Richard Davis (Cambridge University Press, 241 pp., $28.99) The way in which every person, every institution, relates to people is essentially, though often unconsciously, theatrical. We are experts in self-presentation, in acting a part to further our aims and interests. We have, all of us, a public relations strategy. This is true of the Supreme Court, too, and of the individual Supreme Court justices.
If you’re a betting person, here’s a safe bet: On August 9, the balloting in the east African state of Rwanda will give world-famous military leader Paul Kagame yet another seven-year term as president. The astonishing margin of victory will impress even the modern grand viziers of Central Asia.
A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law by Antonin Scalia (Princeton University Press, 159 pp., $19.95) Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution by Jack N. Rakove (Knopf, 420 pp., $35) We are all originalists now. That is to say, most judges and legal scholars who want to remain within the boundaries of respectable constitutional discourse agree that the original meaning of the Constitution and its amendments has some degree of pertinence to the question of what the Constitution means today.
Having peered behind the red velvet curtains of the Rehnquist Court, the press now tells the embarrassed justices that they have nothing to be embarrassed about. But after spending last week in the Marshall archives, I sympathize with William Rehnquist's fears. The portrait of the justices that emerges from their internal correspondence is not, in fact, particularly flattering.
Even in the context of the Supreme Court tussles that have provided political entertainment since at least the 1930s, the 1987 saga of Robert Bork, Douglas Ginsburg and Anthony Kennedy broke new ground. What made the play rougher this time was the heightened consciousness of the power stakes, a more aggressive deployment of the interest groups, and a great sophistication in media use. If the overworked term “watershed” still conveys some meaning, it applies here to the future direction of confirmation politics.
MANY OF MY friends, if they are still in legal practice, now hate it. “The world’s most overrated job,” one of them says. Lined up at motion calls: a lost generation, the Warren Court baby boom, the flood of us who went to law school in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We took Tocqueville seriously, and thought lawyers were America’s governing class. And the Warren Court was a Court of gods—Black, Douglas, Warren—hurling thunderbolts to start our cultural revolutions. Back then, the law seemed like a romance.