Review of "The Supreme Court"

As an introductory text to the institution, The Supreme Court by Lawrence Baum does an excellent job of covering every major aspect of how the court operates. Baum delineates the decision making processes that play into the setting of the court’s agenda, periodizes the trends in rulings and charts the various developments of court norms and practices in an almost conversational, politically neutral manner. This last quality ought not to be taken to mean that Baum does not point out some of the potential problems of the court, but that they are left to the reader to research further into those subjects on their own.

One example of this is in his charting of evolving court norms. Baum points out that new standards of professionalism has meant that those lawyers not adhering to them are looked upon with disdain by the court and interrupted by the judges more frequently. By itself it could be seen as a logical adaptation of an institution, however it’s pointed out by the author that this has had the effect of making it more difficult for various interest groups to be able to argue at the Supreme Court level. The reason for this is because large amounts of money must be spent on lawyers who specialize in arguing in front of the court. Another issue linked to the increasing divergence of SCOTUS rulings from populist pressures is the large growth in the submission of Amicus Curiae briefs to court. As I said earlier though, Baum is not interested in arguing so much as he is expositing in a functionalist manner that does not isolate the court from it’s place within society and acknowledges that the special interest groups will attempt to sway the court or mobilize their base for donations.

Additionally Baum devotes a significant amount of attention to the current court’s occupants. Prior to biographical insights that may affect the current court’s jurisprudence, Baum charts the social background of the judges over time, showing how it is that once the children of elite were the only occupants of the robes and how it is now more, ostensibly, of a more meritocratic nature. Baum sagely points out, however, that the conservative nature of the institution, the social interaction with elites concomitant with such a career path is likely to make any sympathies with the “lower-class” to be negligible.

Throughout Baum is keen to downplay the role of the court as a policy making institution, especially as it relates to modern times, and focuses more on the aforementioned procedural issues. In this emphasis on the court’s “indirect impacts” I think we come to one of the books few weaknesses. Their lack of their capacity to enforce certain actions, their reactive nature and the manner in which laws alter social relations amongst actors in manners that are often difficult to quantify are just some of the issues that, while alighted upon, seem to me to be emphasized unduly. This is not to say that he completely ignores counterfactuals, touching briefly as he does on NLRB v. Mackay Radio & Television Company and Marquette National Bank v. First of Omaha Service Corp. Recent SCOTUS rulings have drastically altered the economic, social and political landscape and if not wholly emanating from the court are at least legitimized by their pronouncements. As I said in the beginning though, these are issues to which Baum is not actively seeking to analyze. I’d purchased this books in hopes of finding something that I’d be able to assign as supplementary reading for my American Government class for those interested in law and for that end find the book to be ideal.