Five Chiefs is a practical book, a pragmatic one, much like its author and the hundreds of other federal judges of his generation, who came to the courts, with war experience, from private practice. Justice Stevens has his share of critics-- you don't serve on the High Court for 35 years without breaking some eggs-- but no one will fairly portray him as an ideologue or polemist either in his temperamant or his jurisprudence. He is the last living justice to be born in the 1920s (1920, to be exact) and it shows in the tone and tenor of this book. Remember the good old days when more of our public officials were like this?
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Since his retirement in June 2010, Justice Stevens often has passionately voiced his views on contentious legal and political issues. His piece on the teetering constitutional underpinnings of the death penalty, published last fall in The New York Review of Books, was a profoundly important and timely bit of work. It is clear, wonderfully clear, that he has chosen the path taken by his former colleague, Sandra Day O'Connor, who has been a forceful advocate for judicial independence and civics scholarship. It is a good thing, a vital thing, that our retired justices want to stay active in the public life of the country.
In Five Chiefs, however, Stevens' focused eye gives way to a hundred or so smaller points, some densely legal, some historical, some even funny. When the outside line would ring inside the Court's conference room during sessions-- obviously a wrong number-- Justice Byron White would invariably answer "Joe's bar." Funny guy, the Whizzer, except for Bowers v. Hardwick. And did you know each justice still has a metal spittoon near her/his chair in court? (Memo to administrators: put those suckers up on E-bay and use the proceeds to give trial judges a raise.)
Although Justice Stevens takes a few pot shots here and there-- at Justice Thomas, at the late Chief Justices William Rehnquist and Earl Warren-- the book is free of any arguments directed toward the reader or against a particular person. Stevens is happy to tell you what he thinks of some of the most important and interesting (to him, anyway) cases that came across his desk over the years. And he's quite willing to tell you which justices he thinks got the law wrong. But he's not interested, at least not in this book, in trying to convince you that he's right. Hopefully, that will come in the next book. Or the one after that.
Calling it "inside baseball at its best," the legal scholar Geoffrey Stone has written a good review of the book here. It is worth reading for the details of the "shots" I reference above. There is what journalists call "inside baseball" in the book-- details about the Court's history and practices that Court junkies will savour and that general readers will likely find charming. As of 2010, evidently, the place is still run like the prestigious law firms of our youth, an anachronism almost as jarring (and as endearing) as a judge who still calls the copier a "Xerox machine."