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Browsing through annals of high court history

The Illustrated History of the Supreme Court of the United States, by Robert Shnayerson. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 304 pp. $60. In ``The Federalist'' No. 78, Alexander Hamilton called the national judiciary ``beyond comparison the weakest department of power'' - since it would command neither arms nor money.

Today the United States Supreme Court is acknowledged by nearly all as the most powerful judicial body in the world. But with its accumulated strength, it has also spawned considerable controversy and criticism.

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``As the final interpreter of the world's oldest written constitution, the Supreme Court has become a sort of political gyroscope,'' writes Robert Shnayerson in this handsome, bicentennial volume on the nation's highest legal tribunal.

The former editor-in-chief of Harper's magazine points out, however, that ``the gyroscope is hardly flawless.

``The Court was responsible for issuing the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which helped to ignite the Union's most centrifugal explosion, the Civil War,'' Shnayerson reminds us.

``Yet the fact remains that without the Constitution as secular scripture, without the Supreme Court to expound it, America would not have become the singular nation we know - 50 quasi-sovereign states united in harmony not only as a tarriff-free common market, but as the world's oldest, most stable federal republic,'' he adds.

The author's underlying message - which he stresses repeatedly as he walks readers through the annals of judicial history - is that it is the mandate of the United States Supreme Court to ``reaffirm the American principle that government ultimately belongs to the people, not the other way around.''

This journey is a brilliant civics lesson - a series of succinct essays on the workings and history of the high court. It is beautifully adorned with an abundance of visual complements, among them historic photographs from public and private collections.

The volume's later chapters are less festive and more verbally detailed. They chronicle major decisions of the recently concluded Burger court era. (Longtime Chief Justice Warren E. Burger retired last Spring and was replaced by new Chief Justice William Rehnquist.) Key rulings on free speech, censorship, church and state, search and seizure, capital punishment, and racial discrimination are analyzed.

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The book was published in association with the Supreme Court Historical Society. It's a fitting tribute to the 200th anniversary of the Constitution next year - and an excellent choice for a holiday gift.

Curtis J. Sitomer covers constitutional issues for the Monitor.

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