Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices

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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.

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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

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.
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.

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
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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780446580571
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 11/8/2010
  • Pages: 513
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.70 (d)

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). In 2003, he served as senior constitutional advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and subsequently advised members of the Iraqi Governing Council on the drafting of an interim constitution. Esquire named him among seventy-five influential figures for the 21st century and New York magazine designated him as one of three top "influentials in ideas." He is currently a professor at Harvard University, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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