Thursday, May 3, 2007

Rife lauds new edition of Irons, A People's History of the Supreme Court, and other takes on Irons

Peter Irons, A People's History of the Supreme Court: The Men and Women Whose Cases and Decisions Have Shaped Our Constitution (Penguin Books, 2006) is reviewed for H-Law by Martine Courant Rife, Communication Department, Lansing Community College.

NOTE: This is a new edition of Irons' book, which was first published in 1999, and reviewed on H-Law in 2000. Rife makes no mention of the previous edition, and most unfortunately does not tell the reader what changes have been made in the new edition -- the entire reason for a review of a second edition! I am linking to this review for one reason: many of our students take Irons as the bible on the U.S. Constitution, and we need to pay attention to what they're reading. The republication by Penguin is surely a sign that Irons is expected to be a mass market book for some time.

Here's Rife's take:

This comprehensive book covers major Supreme Court opinions beginning with a separation of powers case, Hayburn's case (1792), and ending with a challenge to the American detention facility at Guantanamo, Rasul v. Bush (2005). Peter Irons modeled his book on Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (2003) and while Irons's text generally fits within literature on the Constitution and Supreme Court, he writes in a style suitable for non-lawyers.This book will be of special interest to those interested in social activism and critical race theory, as well as how issues of race have been shaped by,and in turn shaped, major decisions of the Supreme Court. While legal scholar sand historians will appreciate the book as it is situated within the existing literature, the book is also extremely accessible for a legal novice. The context and details provided for each case add to the "human interest" factor such that this book is entertaining (and sometimes emotionally wrenching) as well as educational.

The book is divided into seven sections and thirty-eight chapters, outlined within the table of contents which provides detailed subheadings for each chapter, along with a very useful list of cases discussed in each chapter and their dates.... Irons discusses key cases, including not only the decisions, but also the political factors influencing decisions, and additional human interest details about plaintiffs and defendants involved in these cases. Such discussions illuminate how context-based every Supreme Court opinion is, and how often they are tied to the personal and political views of the judges who have served....

This is an excellent book and is highly recommended; it may even be plausible to argue that this book should be required reading for every U.S. citizen. A weak area of the book, however, is its neglect of Supreme Court decisions regarding Native Americans....I nonetheless highly recommend this book because it does much to reveal the entangled issues of race that have shaped U.S. history. This book serves as a resource as well to those teaching on or around legal histories, since bringing in some of the "stories" surrounding key Supreme Court opinions will surely add to the ability of students to engage with the material.

For the full review, click here.

What was said on H-Law about Irons' book the first time around? KC Johnson , Brooklyn College/CUNY called A People's History of the Supreme Court

a frustrating book. Beginning in the colonial era, Irons provides a readable and well-structured survey of American constitutional history during the last 250 years. By confining his analysis to a relatively narrow band of cases, he is able to present a coherent and consistent argument detailing the often unhealthy intersection of law and politics, while also supplying enough detail to avoid an overly thin coverage. And Irons sprinkles the book with fresh interpretations, particularly in his discussions of the Marshall years and the Supreme Court during the Progressive Era.

He accomplishes these tasks, however, while generally falling short in his main argument: that understanding the personal lives of the people who filed key constitutional cases is a key part of coming to terms with constitutional history. In fact, Irons's generally persuasive portrayal of two centuries' worth of Supreme Court Justices as figures who approached cases with preconceived ideological and political biases tends to undermine his contention for the importance of a bottom-up approach to studying constitutional history.

The fuller review, concluding that the book's strengths outweigh its weaknesses, is here.

Not so favorable was John E. Semonche, University of North Carolina, in his Journal of American History review of the first edition. He notes:

After getting the Constitution and Bill of Rights in place, Irons draws out the human dramas involved as individuals contend for their rights. He believes that the Constitution is a flexible document within which the justices have wide-ranging discretion, along with an obligation, to interpret the fundamental law to promote the dignity of the individual.

This review proceeds on the assumption that a viable history of the Court could be written by focusing largely on human rights cases dealing with race, class, and gender, by highlighting the litigants involved in the key cases, and by taking such an expansive view of the Court's proper role. Granting this much, Irons's treatment still is disappointing.

The book is neither well written nor well focused. Transitions are awkward, organization is loose, and the treatment is uneven. The book has no unifying theme; it is episodic, digressive, and, on its own terms, incomplete....Clearly, the author is not writing for the specialist, but even the general reader deserves better.

Ouch! The rest of that one is here.

Readers, of course, should draw their own conclusions. But let's agree on one thing: when you review a second edition, let's consider the role of a review of a republished work: to note changes, to consider the book's impact since it first appeared, to ask whether the editing was responsive to earlier criticism. No book is perfect, and often writers will address criticism in a later edition. But later editions are often not reviewed. If a reader sees a review of Irons that takes up these issues, please send a link.