Justices at Home: Three Supreme Court Memoirs

The Supreme Court, once an austere and remote institution, is increasingly the focus of popular attention. The Justices are profiled in the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker, photographed with family members for mass-market books, and – on the evening the Court decided Bush v. Gore – televised leaving the courthouse parking garage. In the spring 2002 television season, two hour-long programs were set in the Supreme Court; both were briskly cancelled, but during their brief runs they featured Justices as heroic figures played by prominent actors. When a former law clerk recently published his account of internecine warfare on the Court during his clerkship year, it was boldly subtitled “The First Eyewitness Account of the Epic Struggles Inside the Supreme Court” and marketed as a rare look at the secret drama unfolding inside the Justices’ marble palace. These various glimpses of the Supreme Court, some a good deal more distorted than others, share a common assumption: public curiosity about the men and women who sit on the Court. The commercial success of The Brethren almost a quarter century ago remains the strongest evidence of that curiosity, which Woodward and Armstrong fed with a series of anecdotes about the personal interactions of the Justices and their distaste for some of their colleagues. Legal scholars with a more professional curiosity have long understood that there are relatively few dramatic revelations occurring behind the scenes. As the Court files of several Justices now available to researchers reveal, much of the interaction among the Justices is conducted through memos rather than conversation, and the points of controversy are usually technical rather than personal. Serious studies of the Court and comprehensive biographies of its Justices consequently tend to offer little in the way of excitement for a general audience and usually fail as well to satisfy its basic curiosity. Despite the increased attention paid to the Court in recent years, the Justices remain largely indistinct – and indistinguishable – figures for most Americans.