Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Supreme Court Storytime

It’s a gorgeous week in Cambridge, with sunshine and temperatures over fifty degrees for several days now. This made it much easier to drag myself out of bed Monday morning no matter how exhausted and sore I was from an amazing ski weekend in Maine with friends!

But once I get to class each day, I'm reminded of another reason to be glad I got up: my Constitutional Law class has just reached the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, which our professor sees as a great opportunity to give us a sense of the rich social and historical context and personal dynamics between the Justices affecting such a major decision.

So we get to hear about Justice Jackson’s lifelong hatred of Justice Black, partly based on the suspicion that Black personally visited President Truman to threaten to resign if Jackson were made Chief Justice. Jackson retaliated by sending a telegram to Congress and the press calling Black irresponsible for failing to recuse himself in a case argued by a former law partner. (There were calls for both Justices to resign at this point because of the embarrassment they’d caused the Court, but both stuck around.)

We've heard about the bitter dislike between Justice Frankfurter and Justice Douglas, who became a leading expert at taunting Frankfurter during their years together on the court. During oral arguments, he loved to pass Frankfurter snide notes saying lawyers who were floundering under the Court’s questioning must have been Frankfurter’s star pupils when he was a professor. Douglas would also begin his comments in conference, which he made right after Frankfurter due to seniority, by saying he’d arrived expecting to vote the same way as Frankfurter but had just been persuaded otherwise.

My professor also notes that even the Justices most at odds with each other were united in their dislike for Chief Justice Vinson. Apparently, Justice Frankfurter once referred to Vinson’s death as the only evidence he’d ever seen for the existence of God.

Apart from the hilarity of seeing Supreme Court justices call each other “vegetable” and "son of a bitch" left and right, it's amazing to learn how one of the most famous unanimous opinions in Supreme Court history arose from such discord. It strikes me as lucky—or perhaps genius—that the professor hits this section of the syllabus just as spring fever hits the student body. Even with this lovely weather and the upcoming break to distract us, there’s still a very good reason to show up and listen.


mimi said...

Ha ha ha ha!! I really loved this post. I want to study constitutional law (including the personalities and shenanigans of the justices) when I grow up.

teahouse said...

Really fascinating. I didn't learn any of this in law school; it's always fun to learn nuggets like this about the Justices. Reminds me of a lot of the stories I read in The Nine.