The reason for this slow start may be that the original intent of the drafters of the Constitution of the United States is decidedly vague. That august document addresses at length the powers of the Executive and Legislative branches in Articles I and II, but mentions the “supreme Court” in only a few rather unspecific sentences within a relatively brief Article III, which expounds on the Judiciary. Our highest court was clearly the tail of the federal dog.
Having a Supreme Court seemed like a good idea, but no one knew what to make of it once they had it. It was left to Chief Justice John Marshall, who stayed on the case for 34 years, to elbow the court’s way into being a player with the other two branches of the federal government.
As O’Connor points out repeatedly, the court has evolved. Oral arguments, for example, which once might ramble on for days – and remarkably, uninterrupted by the justices – are limited now to 30 minutes. Today the nine justices do not hear every case that wends its way through the system, but select some 90 a year – or roughly one percent of the 8,000 petitions they receive.
Such details are all well and good. They are fodder for a middling, middle school civics textbook. Indeed, the author’s prose often seems aimed at that audience: “Underneath their robes, so to speak, the Justices of the Supreme Court are real, often quite unique, people.” We learn how these real people have a collegial tradition of shaking hands before taking the bench, but not how they interact and come to a decision afterwards – for example in Bush v. Gore, in which O’Connor is widely viewed as having cast the deciding, or “swing” vote for the ideologically split court.
It is not simply that the author has decided not to “tell all,” as she refers derisively to examining insider aspects of her nearly 25-year tenure. In her haste to get on to the next judicial factoid, she fails to flesh out what ripping good stories she does include.