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In the old days, lawyers arguing before the Supreme Court could blather on, uninterrupted, for as long as 10 days. Nowadays, they’re strictly limited to 30 minutes of argument time — and they’re deemed lucky if they can speak more than two sentences before the justices interject.The first chief justice, John Jay, resigned to become governor of New York. He didn’t think the Supreme Court would amount to much.
And until Chief Justice William Howard Taft, a former president, lobbied for a Supreme Court building, the nation’s highest court shared office space over the years with merchants, lower courts and Congress.
For an institution so seemingly steeped in tradition, the nature of the Supreme Court has changed and evolved drastically over its lifetime.
That’s the main takeaway from a new book by former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the job. “Out of Order: Stories From the History of the Supreme Court” is readable, accessible and full of riveting anecdotes, even if the level of detail may occasionally bore the casual reader.
O’Connor skillfully highlights myriad personalities in the history of the court, from John McLean, who ran unsuccessfully for president four times while serving on the court, to Byron White, who played professional football for the Pittsburgh Pirates (now Steelers) and Detroit Lions before being appointed to the bench. (He was also a Rhodes scholar and served in the Navy.)
The dubious designation as one of the worst justices ever falls on James McReynolds, who wrote comments like “This makes me sick” on colleagues’ circulating opinions. A self-professed anti-Semite, McReynolds read a newspaper during a Jewish colleague’s swearing-in ceremony, and at his funeral in 1946, not a single fellow justice was in attendance.
O’Connor offers a few juicy tidbits about life as a Supreme Court justice. She writes that each newly appointed justice is “permitted” to sit in the historic chair used by Chief Justice John Marshall. (Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she felt as if history were “coursing through” her when she sat on it.)
Just before taking the bench during oral arguments, the justices gather in the robing room and partake in a “judicial handshake,” with each justice shaking the hand and greeting every other justice. After morning arguments wrap up, the justices have lunch together — and no work talk is allowed.
“Out of Order” is, at its core, a compact history book on the Supreme Court — albeit a more lighthearted, personality-filled one than you might find in a high school classroom. O’Connor may have overestimated people’s interest in reading about every person nominated to the court, and she doesn’t reveal nearly as much behind-the-scenes information as did Jeffrey Toobin in his excellent book “The Nine.” But “Out of Order” is a solid addition to the library of layman books about the court.
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