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Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices [NOOK Book]

Overview

A tiny, ebullient Jew who started as America's leading liberal and ended as its most famous judicial conservative. A Klansman who became an absolutist advocate of free speech and civil rights. A backcountry lawyer who started off trying cases about cows and went on to conduct the most important international trial ever. A self-invented, tall-tale Westerner who narrowly missed the presidency but expanded individual freedom beyond what anyone ...
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Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices

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Overview

A tiny, ebullient Jew who started as America's leading liberal and ended as its most famous judicial conservative. A Klansman who became an absolutist advocate of free speech and civil rights. A backcountry lawyer who started off trying cases about cows and went on to conduct the most important international trial ever. A self-invented, tall-tale Westerner who narrowly missed the presidency but expanded individual freedom beyond what anyone before had dreamed.

Four more different men could hardly be imagined. Yet they had certain things in common. Each was a self-made man who came from humble beginnings on the edge of poverty. Each had driving ambition and a will to succeed. Each was, in his own way, a genius.

They began as close allies and friends of FDR, but the quest to shape a new Constitution led them to competition and sometimes outright warfare. SCORPIONS tells the story of these four great justices: their relationship with Roosevelt, with each other, and with the turbulent world of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. It also serves as a history of the modern Constitution itself.

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Editorial Reviews

Adam Cohen
…[a] smart and engaging group biography of four larger-than-life justices appointed by Franklin D. Roose­velt…if the book lacks a grand theory, it has an unmistakable lament. Call it "scorpion nostalgia": the conviction that despite the flaws of Frankfurter, Jackson, Black and Douglas, today's court is diminished for not having justices like them on it.
—The New York Times
Dennis Drabelle
…one is grateful for what the author has accomplished: a book blessedly free of legal jargon, nuanced without being cryptic and full of high-stakes intellectual drama.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
As a conservative Supreme Court flexes its muscles against a Democratic president for the first time since the New Deal, a series of recent books has explored the constitutional battles of the Roosevelt era and their contemporary relevance. Harvard law professor Feldman's Scorpions focuses more on the battles of the 1940s and 1950s, and it is distinguished by its thesis that the "distinctive constitutional theories" of Roosevelt's four greatest justices, all of whom began as New Deal liberals--Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert Jackson--have continued to "cover the whole field of constitutional thought" up to the present day. Feldman argues that Black, the liberal originalist; Douglas, the activist libertarian; Frankfurter, the advocate of strenuous judicial deference; and Jackson, the pragmatist; achieved greatness by developing four unique constitutional approaches, which reflected their own personalities and worldviews, although they were able to converge on common ground in Brown v. Board of Education,which Feldman calls the last and greatest act of the Roosevelt Court. The pleasure of this book comes from Feldman's skill as a narrator of intellectual history. With confidence and an eye for telling details, he relates the story of the backstage deliberations that contributed to the landmark decisions of the Roosevelt Court, including not onlyBrownbut also cases involving the internment of Japanese-Americans, the trial of the German saboteurs, and President Truman's seizure of the steel mills to avoid a strike. Combining the critical judgments of a legal scholar with political and narrative insight, Feldman is especially good in describing how the clashing personalities and philosophies of his four protagonists were reflected in their negotiations and final opinions; his concise accounts of Brown and the steel seizure case, for example, are memorable. And he describes how the rivalries and personality clashes among the four liberal allies eventually drove them apart: Hugo Black's determination to take revenge on those who offended his Southern sense of honor led him to retaliate not only against Jackson and Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone but also against the racist Southerners who had disclosed his former Ku Klux Klan membership to the press. Not all readers will be convinced by Feldman's thesis that the judicial philosophies of the Roosevelt justices continue to define the Court's terms of debate today: on the left and the right, there are, for example, no advocates of Frankfurter's near-complete judicial abstinence or of Douglas's romantic libertarian activism. And in the political arena, the constitutional debates of the 1940s and '50s seem less relevant today than those of the Progressive era, when liberals first attacked the conservative Court as pro-business, and conservatives insisted that only the Court could defend liberty in the face of an out-of-control regulatory state. But Feldman does not try to make too much of the contemporary relevance of the battles he describes: this is a first-rate work of narrative history that succeeds in bringing the intellectual and political battles of the post-Roosevelt Court vividly to life. Reviewed by Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, is the author of The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America.
Washington Lawyer
"Scorpions is a deft and sophisticated panoramic history of a fascinating era, an important one of Supreme Court jurisprudence, told simply without losing substance . . . Through excellent storytelling and absorbing case histories about interesting, ambitious men grappling with profound and complicated issues-and with each other-Feldman's approach will satisfy constitutional scholars as well as inform readers in the general public. His broad canvas is both accessible and thoughtful."
Booklist
"By so personifying competing modes of constitutional interpretation, Feldman, a law professor, elevates the story from specialty to general interest and, to boot, embroiders technicalities about original intent and the like with animosities that roiled the quartet . . . Taking readers into the conference room, Feldman shows this unpolished side of the Supreme Court in cases of the 1940s, culminating in his account about how Frankfurter achieved unanimity in the landmark desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education. The interpersonal factor in court politics is knowledgeably displayed in Feldman's intriguing account."
Louis Menand
"Noah Feldman's book is more than a fascinating group biography of four complicated, brilliant, and ambitious men, and more than a precise and illuminating account of liberalism and Constitutional law. It's also a window on history-from Sacco and Vanzetti and the Great Depression to Pearl Harbor, the Nuremberg Trials, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement. There is adventure on every page."
Jon Meacham
"In this splendid biography, Noah Feldman sets out to tell the story of the making of the modern Constitution-and thus of modern America itself-through the lives of Franklin Roosevelt and four of his Supreme Court justices. The result is a terrific tale of politics and principle, personality and vision. The battles of these four 'scorpions' gave us our world, and Feldman's excellent book is a powerful and original contribution to our understanding of the 20th century-and of our own."
Jeffrey Toobin

"FDR appointed larger-than-life characters to the Supreme Court, and SCORPIONS brings them vividly to life - and reminds us why, strangely enough, they matter today more than ever."
From the Publisher
"Scorpions is a deft and sophisticated panoramic history of a fascinating era, an important one of Supreme Court jurisprudence, told simply without losing substance . . . Through excellent storytelling and absorbing case histories about interesting, ambitious men grappling with profound and complicated issues-and with each other-Feldman's approach will satisfy constitutional scholars as well as inform readers in the general public. His broad canvas is both accessible and thoughtful."—Washington Lawyer

"By so personifying competing modes of constitutional interpretation, Feldman, a law professor, elevates the story from specialty to general interest and, to boot, embroiders technicalities about original intent and the like with animosities that roiled the quartet . . . Taking readers into the conference room, Feldman shows this unpolished side of the Supreme Court in cases of the 1940s, culminating in his account about how Frankfurter achieved unanimity in the landmark desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education. The interpersonal factor in court politics is knowledgeably displayed in Feldman's intriguing account."—Booklist

"The pleasure of this book comes from Feldman's skill as a narrator of intellectual history. With confidence and an eye for telling details he relates the story of the backstage deliberations . . . Feldman is especially good in describing how the clashing personalities and philosophies of his four protagonists were reflected in their negotiations and final opinions . . . This is a first-rate work of narrative history that succeeds in bringing the intellectual and political battles of the post-Roosevelt Court vividly to life."—Publishers Weekly

"Of Franklin Roosevelt's nine Supreme Court appointments, four have had lasting influence ... Feldman neatly demonstrates how their careers and personal histories accounted for their mutual resentments and shaped their distinctive approaches to constitutional interpretation. Frankfurter's judicial restraint, Black's originalism, Jackson's pragmatism and Douglas's realism-four interpretive doctrines that continue to reverberate-are fleshed out in accessible discussions of important cases dealing with presidential power and civil rights. The process of how they put aside personal differences and individual philosophies to reach agreement in the historic Brown v. Board of Education is only part of the author's revealing exploration.

An immensely readable history that goes behind the façade of our most august institution to reveal the flesh-and-blood characters who make our laws."

Kirkus (Starred Review)

"Noah Feldman's book is more than a fascinating group biography of four complicated, brilliant, and ambitious men, and more than a precise and illuminating account of liberalism and Constitutional law. It's also a window on history-from Sacco and Vanzetti and the Great Depression to Pearl Harbor, the Nuremberg Trials, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement. There is adventure on every page."—Louis Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club

"In this splendid biography, Noah Feldman sets out to tell the story of the making of the modern Constitution-and thus of modern America itself-through the lives of Franklin Roosevelt and four of his Supreme Court justices. The result is a terrific tale of politics and principle, personality and vision. The battles of these four 'scorpions' gave us our world, and Feldman's excellent book is a powerful and original contribution to our understanding of the 20th century-and of our own."

Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize winning author of American Lion

"FDR appointed larger-than-life characters to the Supreme Court, and SCORPIONS brings them vividly to life - and reminds us why, strangely enough, they matter today more than ever."—Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

Kirkus Reviews

New York Times Magazine contributor Feldman (Law/Harvard Univ.; (The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, 2008, etc.) compares the careers and the constitutional visions of four of the most important Supreme Court justices ever.

Of Franklin Roosevelt's nine Supreme Court appointments, four have had lasting influence. By the time he was appointed to the Court, Felix Frankfurter, the activist law professor, had already seeded the government with acolytes, making him the best connected man in Washington; Alabama Sen. Hugo Black, whose brief affiliation with the KKK emerged after his confirmation, busied himself reading history and suffering criticism of his early, amateurish opinions; Robert Jackson, whose nomination culminated in a remarkably swift rise within the administration, had already developed a reputation as a felicitous stylist; and William O. Douglas, the youngest justice ever confirmed, was Wall Street's scourge as chair of the SEC. All sprung from childhood poverty. All revered Louis Brandeis, the liberal lion, and all firmly opposed the property-protecting doctrine of the Lochner-era Court. Committed New Dealers, all embraced liberal goals, and all were ferociously ambitious. Frankfurter aspired to the court's intellectual leadership. Jackson burned to be Chief Justice. Only after many years did Black and Douglas abandon notions about the presidency. Broadly in agreement during FDR's life, their intellectual paths diverged after his death, even as personal relations among them horribly deteriorated. Feldman neatly demonstrates how their careers and personal histories accounted for their mutual resentments and shaped their distinctive approaches to constitutional interpretation. Frankfurter's judicial restraint, Black's originalism, Jackson's pragmatism and Douglas's realism—four interpretive doctrines that continue to reverberate—are fleshed out in accessible discussions of important cases dealing with presidential power and civil rights. The process of how they put aside personal differences and individual philosophies to reach agreement in the historicBrown v. Board of Educationis only part of the author's revealing exploration.

An immensely readable history that goes behind the façade of our most august institution to reveal the flesh-and-blood characters who make our laws.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780446575140
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 11/8/2010
  • Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 329,642
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Noah Feldman is the author of four previous books: The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State (Princeton University Press, 2008), Divided By God (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005); What We Owe Iraq (Princeton University Press, 2004); and After Jihad (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003).
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 12, 2010

    A must for anyone interested in the history of the Suprem Court

    In late 1952,Justice Hugo Black announced in conference, that he would be voting in the Brown vs. Board of Education case to end segregation in the Topeka, Kansas, school system and thus by implication in school districts across the country.
    That this former Senator from Alabama, a son of the rural deep south, who had once joined the Ku Klux Klan in order to get elected to the US Senate, had come so far in just a quarter of a century to where he would now defy his beloved south and decide it was time to integrate public schools, can be ascribed to the flexibility of mind of this one man and to the incredible system put in place by the framers of our Constitution.
    Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices, by Noah Feldman, is the story of Black and three other brilliant men, appointed by Franklin Roosevelt to the Supreme Court. All four grew up in somewhat adverse conditions, and through native intelligence, hard work and a bit of luck, all reached positions of power and notoriety and left a legacy in American legal history.
    Aside from Black there was Felix Frankfurter, the scholar and teacher who could be irritatingly patronizing to anyone he considered below him in intellect - and in Frankfurter's view that meant practically everyone besides Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom he revered and Louis Brandeis who was his mentor and patron, until the two broke over Roosevelt's Court Packing Plan. There was William O. Douglas, whom his brethren considered nothing more than a politician and whose true goal to become President would have been realized if the conservative bosses of the Democratic party had not reversed the order of the top 2 names FDR favored to be his 1944 running mate (Harry Truman was FDR's second choice, but as a product of a big city political machine he was much more palatable to the party leadership than the maverick Douglas). Finally there was Robert Jackson, who many consider to be one of the three most gifted writers, along with Joseph Story and William Brennan to have sat on the Supreme Court.
    Like Black, Douglas and Jackson grew up in meager economic surrounding . Douglas was raised by a single mother in rural Washington State and Jackson grew up poor in a small town in Western New York. Frankfurter, who grew up in a middle class home was an immigrant from Austria who spoke no English until arriving in the United States at the age of 12.
    This book is the story of these four men, their relationship to Roosevelt, and to each other during the dozen or so years they served together and how each made a mark in history. It is insightful, well researched and well-written with poignancy - the author contends that it was only after Douglas' realization that by the early 1950's he no longer had a realistic chance of being president that he became resigned to a career on the Court and became the great champion of civil liberties; and humor - upon hearing of Chief Justice Vinson's death in 1953, Frankfurter, who despised Vinson, remarked to his law clerk, "For the first time, I have seen evidence that there is a God" .
    Anyone interested in the Supreme Court, FDR, the Great Depression, the 1930's or the US Constitution must - I repeat - must read this book.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2012

    FANTASTIC

    Well done in a fantastic easy to read and hard to put down way. As I am not a lawyer but do have a poli. sci. degree, I found this a great broad based seminar on many of the issues today in the courts, in particular with campaign finance. Really, a wonderful read fully explaining the personal and political impact on many of the most important people of the last 100 years.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 25, 2012

    If truth be told, I did not read every word of this book. For th

    If truth be told, I did not read every word of this book. For the layman, the ordinary reader, there is simply too much detail. A history buff or scholar would be more inclined to do it justice. It was recommended to me by someone reading it for a course at the local college. It is better suited to a classroom with someone organizing and leading the discussion about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s extended Presidency. The book is about the effect of his appointments to the Supreme Court, in his attempt to pack it in his favor to gain passage of his bills. He did not like to be opposed and it examines how he shaped the Court and its future. The working and personal relationships of the men appointed by FDR is discussed and explored. It is really interesting and not all that hard to read, but it is really difficult to remember the myriad details without an expert guide.
    It can honestly be remarked that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born with a silver spoon; he carefully planned his political life very early on. He married Eleanor, against his mother's wishes, for reasons of both love and ambition. He changed parties to win elections and in order not to compete with his distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt. He always had high ambitions and eventually joined forces with Theodore, to reform the corrupt Democrats, but then after two years in the Senate, still green around the gills, he went to Washington to get more experience for his future as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. He was a pragmatist, perhaps a bit mercenary, and did whatever was necessary to rise in the political world, changing parties for political advantage.
    As President, FDR created the first activist Supreme Court by appointing “good old boys” who would support his philosophy. He changed the court from a body strictly examining and interpreting the constitutionality of the law, to a body that interpreted and created it. He appointed Justices Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, Robert Jackson and William O. Douglas, four men of completely diverse backgrounds and beliefs. The selection was based solely on political advantage. Roosevelt surrounded himself with men who would do his bidding rather than men of strong conviction. He did not want to deal with disapproval or dissent. However, the judges he appointed rarely got along and harbored long standing grudges against each other, bickering angrily when they convened.
    The book is timely in the sense that today we see a similar political and financial situation occurring. There has been a financial crisis. There is deep unemployment. There is a divided country that is suffering and demanding change. The world, at large, is in conflict and there are battles raging abroad. Coincidentally, we have a very progressive President who is once again trying to pack the Court and influence its decisions in ways not seen since FDR. He is lobbying the Supreme Court, even now, in an attempt to influence their decision on the Affordable Health Care Act. He dislikes criticism and does not like opposition, vowing to make judgments and issue orders to pass the policies he wishes even if he cannot get the Congress to support him.
    The intentional effort by Roosevelt to change the way in which the constitution was deliberated and judgments were delivered should give one pause. Should ideology effect the interpretation of the constitution? With the dramatic changes to the Supreme Court, under Roosevelt’s guidance, it surely did.
    In Charles Murray's recently published book, Coming Apart, it is noted that “Francis Grund, son of a German baron, published a two volume appraisal of the American experiment....in 1825, in which he states "no government could be established on the same principle as that of the United States, with a different code of morals"....."change the religious habits of Americans, their religious devotion, and their high respect for morality, and it will not be necessary to change a single letter of the Constitution in order to vary the whole form of their government."
    One has to wonder if our code of morals has not already changed and if other changes to affect our current form of government are not already in progress: is this the intention of the progressive movement today?
    Many questions arise as you read this book.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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