Open Chambers?

Edward Lazarus has written the latest account of what goes on behind the marble walls of the Supreme Court. His book is not the first to selectively reveal confidential communications between the Justices and their law clerks. Another book, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s The Brethren2 achieved that distinction in 1979. Closed Chambers: The First Eyewitness Account of the Epic Struggles Inside the Supreme Court, however, adds a new twist. Whereas The Brethren was written by journalists who persuaded former law clerks to breach the confidences of the Justices, Lazarus was himself a law clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun. Closed Chambers is a well-written book. Lazarus’s prose is concise and colorful. His doctrinal discussions are alive with details from the lives of the persons who brought cases before the Court. Many of these were African-American capital defendants in the South ranging from the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s, nine men who almost certainly did not commit the crime of rape for which eight of them were sentenced to die in Alabama (pp. 77-85), to Warren McCleskey, who was executed in 1991 for murdering an Atlanta police officer while participating in a robbery, although he may not have fired the fatal shots (pp. 170-81). The book’s use of historical material provides perspective on how social norms and politics influence the Justices, as well as the Court’s history of confrontation with other branches of government, from Chief Justice Taney’s pernicious use of substantive due process to flout the Missouri Compromise in Dred Scott (pp. 246-47) to the Court’s dismantling of state death penalty statutes in the 1960s and 1970s (pp. 86-118). Far from being a digression, anecdote and history aptly frame Lazarus’s portrait of the Court in the late 1980s and early 1990s.