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Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir

By John Paul Stevens

Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir

You can view this book's Amazon detail page here.


Started reading:
20th November 2011
Finished reading:
29th November 2011


Rating: Unrated

It is not often that we are able to get a glimpse into the inner workings of the Supreme Court but Justice John Paul Stevens has give us this opportunity in his memoir, Five Chiefs, of his almost 35 years on the Supreme Court. However, don’t expect a tell-all block buster. Stevens’ approach to a memoir and writing style reflects an entire career set in the decorum of the court room. Stevens summarizes life in the court at the end of the chapter on his service as senior justice. He refers to President Ford’s 1976 State of Union address where Ford refers to the US as a place where Americans can disagree without being disagreeable. It is too bad that we have seemed to have lost this prospective in current political discourse.

Stevens starts his book with a short historical perspective on the first 12 Chief Justices of the Supreme Court. While only providing the briefest discussion of key events, this introduction is important since it sets the stage and foundation for much of modern workings of the court. For example, under the tenure of Taft significant opinions were written interpreting the word ‘liberty’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment. These opinions still influence current interpretations. Stevens also makes it clear that intellectual bar was set very high by early court justices and Chief Justices such as John Marshall.

Stevens then goes on to describe the duties of the Chief Justice as the “first among equals”. Interestingly, unlike the the qualification to be President, the Constitution provides no qualifications for being a Supreme Court justice. You don’t have to be a citizen, a lawyer, a voter, or even an adult! Congress over the years has legislated additional duties for the Chief Justice and provided a mere 4% added salary!

The main body of the Stevens’ memoir provides a perpsective on his relationship with each of the five Chief Justices under which he served. In each chapter, he singles out significant court decisions of that Chief’s tenure. Stevens selects the decisions based their impact to society, judicial precedent, or soundness of argument. He approachs each with a VERY brief summary of the issues and then discusses the court deliberations and context of the decision. Some decisions he decided with the majority and with others he dissented. With each discussion we get a small peak into who John Paul Stevens is.

Particularly enlightening in this regard is Stevens’ views on the constitutionality of capital punishment in the chapter on Chief Justice Roberts. Stevens candidly expresses “regret” on a Texas statute vote. A couple of pages later we read that Stevens holds capital punishment to be “the pointless and needles extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purpose”. Later in the same chapter Stevens describes the courts approach and reliance on history (aka original intent) to address “proportionality” in the context of the Eighth Amendment (aka cruel & unusual punishment).

All in all, Five Chiefs is a very interesting and worthwhile glimpse into the workings of the Supreme Court and the mind of one its most influential justices.