The Nine, Jeffery ToobinBlame my increased interest in American politics on my employment by the fourth estate. Or my presence at both political conventions this year. Or the unusually close proximity of my home to the Election Night rally in Grant Park — and all that means for the junior senator from Illinois, now president-elect of the United States. Or maybe it’s just middle age reminding me that I should put down the comic books, turn off the video games and pay closer attention to the wider world around me.

In The Nine, Jeffrey Toobin, a legal writer for the New Yorker, surveys the United States Supreme Court from the Reagan administration on. During this period the justices wrestled with abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty, gay rights and church-state separation. And despite a court dominated by Republican apointees, Toobin’s picture is one not of unmitigated conservatism but surprising moderation. Toobin guides us through the last 15 years of court history by focusing on individual justices. Edward Lazarus of the Washington Post, while generally critical of Toobin’s conclusions, describes these portraits as “unspoiled by hagiography.”

Whirl recommended I read this book after she had finished it a few months ago. Toobin bases much of his book on exclusive interviews with the justices themselves and former law clerks. And by doing so attempts a contemporary profile of those justices, the institution of the court and the changes it has undergone over the last several decades. Lazarus writes,

[W]e have come to vest these unelected, life-tenured judges with final authority to interpret the Constitution as well as all federal law. Yet the justices go to considerable lengths to shroud their deliberations in secrecy, and some of them, notably the current chief justice, engage in a disinformation campaign, announcing that they are disinterested referees, like umpires in baseball, engaged in the pedestrian enterprise of calling legal balls and strikes according to a clear set of rules.

Toobin deserves credit for adding his influential voice to the chorus seeking to debunk this myth. As he observes, the justices are chosen through a political process for political reasons, and the decisions they reach are inevitably influenced by their ideological commitments, personal experiences and personalities.