The Supreme Court The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America

Jeffrey Rosen and Thirtenn/WNET

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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Though it is recognized as an elite branch of the United States government, the Supreme Court is, at its root, a human institution, made up of bright people with strong egos, for whom political and judicial conflicts often become personal. In this character-driven account, Jeffrey Rosen recounts the history of the Court through the personal and philosophical rivalries on the bench that transformed the law—and by extension, the lives of all people governed by U.S. law. Rosen begins with Chief Justice John Marshall and President Thomas Jefferson, cousins from the Virginia elite whose differing visions of America set the tone for the Court's first hundred years. He continues after the Civil War with Justices John Marshall Harlan and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who clashed over the limits of majority rule. Rosen then examines the Warren Court era through the lens of the liberal icons Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, for whom personality loomed larger than ideology. He concludes with a modern pairing, the conservatives William H. Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, only one of whom was able to build majorities in support of his views. Through these four rivalries, Rosen brings to life the conflict that has always animated the Court—between those justices guided by strong ideology and those who forge coalitions and adjust to new realities. He explores the relationship between judicial temperament and judicial success or failure. The PBS classroom discussion guide can be found at


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On April 8, 1952, to prevent an imminent steelworkers’ strike that he thought would cut off the flow of guns to U.S. troops in the middle of the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman decided to use his authority as commander in chief to seize the nation’s steel mills. His decision would provoke more criticism than any other in his presidency. But Truman had been emboldened to act in part because of confidential advice from Chief Justice Fred Vinson, whom Truman had appointed to the Supreme Court in 1946. When Truman informed Vinson in advance of his intention to

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  • Jeffrey Rosen and Thirtenn/WNET

  • Jeffrey Rosen is a professor of law at George Washington University and the legal affairs editor of The New Republic. He is the author of The Most Democratic Branch, The Naked Crowd, and The Unwanted Gaze. His articles have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker. He is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio and lives in Washington, D.C.