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Book preview: Upcoming Linda Greenhouse book on the Court

Ronald K.L. Collins is the Harold S. Shefelman scholar at the University of Washington School of Law. 

She covered the Supreme Court for nearly three decades for The New York Times. During that time she published some 2,800 articles for the Times and covered twenty-nine Terms of the Court.  If you do the math on the number of articles she did and the length of those articles, it comes out to the equivalent of twenty-one average-size books – imagine that, twenty-one volumes on the Court’s work!

By most measures, her work combined technical insight, which pleased lawyers, with accessible prose, which pleased lay readers. As a result, she received numerous awards  for her coverage of the Court – most notably the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism (1998), but also the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism, the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism, and (in 2006) a Radcliffe Institute Medal.

She is, of course, Linda Greenhouse, now the Knight Distinguished Journalist in Residence and Joseph M. Goldstein Senior Fellow at Yale Law School.  Although she left her full-time job at the Times in June 2008, she continues to write a biweekly opinion column on the Court and the law for the paper’s website.    She is also the author of two books:  Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey and Before Roe v. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling, which she co-authored with Yale law professor Reva Siegel.

So what’s left to do?  Well, what about yet another look at the Court and how it works?

Come next March, Oxford University Press will do just that; it will publish Greenhouse’s latest work, The U.S. Supreme Court: A Very Short Introduction, as part of its “Very Short Introduction” series, which contains hundreds of titles.  Notice the word “very” in the subtitle?   It is indeed:  only 145 pages.

Previous works describing the Court and its history ran in excess of 300 pages – consider, for example, Fred Rodell’s Nine Men: A Political History of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1790-1955 (1955). More recent attempts have expanded that number to 450 pages – consider, for example, David O’Brien’s Storm Center: The Supreme Court in American Politics (9th ed., 2011). At the other end of the spectrum is the two-volume, 1,500-plus-page Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court (5th ed., 2010) edited by David Savage of the Los Angeles Times. 

So how will Greenhouse do it?

Here is her response to my query:  “Having written in 800- or 1,000-word chunks for most of my career, the chance to write 30,000 words about the Supreme Court seemed more a luxury than a constraint! The VSI books,” she added, “are sold throughout the English-speaking world, and are aimed at smart, curious people who want to know more about a particular subject. In other words, this is not Supreme Court for Dummies. Rather, I thought of the book, as I was working on it, as the kind of conversation I might have with a neighbor or college classmate who didn’t happen to know much about the Supreme Court and wanted to know more.”

Greenhouse took this conversational approach seriously. “I thought the best way to conduct that conversation was not to engage in broad generalities but to anchor the discussion in concrete examples of the Court at work.” In the process, some “telling details” were woven into her conversational weave. “So, for example, the Court’s prolonged wrestling with the meaning of ‘disability’ as expressed by Congress in the Americans With Disabilities Act is one of the ‘telling details.’ Paul Golob, my wonderful editor for the biography I wrote of Justice Harry Blackmun, would say to me as I was working on that book, ‘show, don’t tell,’ and that’s what I tried to do here, obviously within the constraints of the format.”

Beyond that, here’s how her publisher describes her undertaking: “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 Americans and whose work often appears cloaked in mystery. How do cases get to the Supreme Court? How do the justices go about deciding them? What special role does the chief justice play? What do the law clerks do? How does the court relate to the other branches of government?”

“Greenhouse answers these questions,” we are told, “by depicting the justices as they confront deep constitutional issues or wrestle with the meaning of confusing federal statutes. Throughout, the author examines many individual Supreme Court cases to illustrate points under discussion, ranging from Marbury v. Madison, the seminal case which established judicial review, to the recent District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), which struck down the District of Columbia’s gun-control statute and which was, surprisingly, the first time in its history that the Court issued an authoritative interpretation of the Second Amendment. To add perspective, Greenhouse also compares the Court to foreign courts, revealing interesting differences. For instance, no other country in the world has chosen to bestow life tenure on its judges.”

There you have it, a new one-of-a-kind book on the Supreme Court . . . coming soon.


Recommended Citation: Ron Collins, Book preview: Upcoming Linda Greenhouse book on the Court, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 18, 2011, 10:25 AM),