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The Supreme Court and the Powers of the American Government

The Supreme Court and the Powers of the American Government

by Joan Biskupic, Elder Witt
This guide to the workings of the Supreme Court's decisions examines the relationship between the Court and federal and state government.

The book begins with a description of judicial powers, including federal jurisdiction and judicial restraint. It then discusses the Court's interactions with Congress, the president, and the states; and concludes by looking at the


This guide to the workings of the Supreme Court's decisions examines the relationship between the Court and federal and state government.

The book begins with a description of judicial powers, including federal jurisdiction and judicial restraint. It then discusses the Court's interactions with Congress, the president, and the states; and concludes by looking at the pressures that Congress and the president can bring to bear on the Court. Topics covered include: the constitutional basis for each branch's powers, the evolution of the Court's interactions with federal and state government, key issues, and major cases through the 1995-1996 term.

The reference materials sections provide a glossary of legal terms, information about online and paper sources for Supreme Court decisions, an explanation of how to read a legal citation, biographical data on all justices, the text of the U.S. Constitution, and a selected bibliography. The book also includes a general subject index as well as a case index to all discussed decisions.

Editorial Reviews

Kevin T. McGuire
One of the primary difficulties in writing about the complexities of American constitutional law is discerning the prominent patterns that trace through the long history of the Supreme Court's policy making. This is especially true in such areas as federalism and the separation of powers, where the search for generality is confounded by decisions derived from abstract--and often competing--constitutional provisions. Complicating all this, of course, are the frequent twists and turns in doctrine that have been the byproducts of the ongoing interplay of history, political circumstance, and the changing ideology of the Court. In THE SUPREME COURT AND THE POWERS OF THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT, however, Joan Biskupic and Elder Witt rise to the challenge in a stimulating and comprehensive analysis of the Court's power to define the scope of federal and state authority. These authors do a remarkable job of making sense of a great body of doctrine drawn from a wide range of areas, presenting it all with considerable clarity. Indeed, this is as fine a volume as one could hope to find on the role of the Supreme Court under the Constitution. Tracking the Court's doctrines in the areas of judicial, legislative, and executive power, Biskupic and Witt explore the central issues with which the justices have had to come to terms, examining how the Court has defined the relationship between the national government and the states. Allowing their discussion to be informed by the work of historians, legal scholars, and political scientists, the authors nicely frame those issues at the outset of each chapter and then, through a carefully organized set of specific topics, detail the nature of the conflicts that have arisen and the principal elements of the justices' leading decisions. They do, of course, employ the Court's opinions with profitable effect, but, rather than relying upon them to tell the tale, Biskupic and Witt work hard to condense the essentials of various rulings within an issue area into basic statements of legal policy that are easily understood. By virtue of this method, they are able to cover a dizzying array of subjects. In fact, one cannot but be impressed at the scope of their work. At the same time, each theme receives its deserved degree of attention; subjects such as the commerce clause or presidential war power are given justifiably extensive coverage, while less salient matters, such as Congress's role in the process of amending the Constitution or tests of the president's appointment power, are featured less prominently. Finally, apart from their treatment of constitutional doctrine, the authors devote their concluding chapters to the practical politics of the Court, the congressional and presidential pressures that are frequently brought to bear upon the Court and how the justices have responded to them. Here the authors explore significant battles over judicial selection as well as manipulation of the Court's size, salary, and jurisdiction. The volume has numerous noteworthy features. On a substantive level, for instance, by devoting a good deal of attention to the role of the states in regulating both economic conditions and individual rights, the chapter on federalism illustrates the importance of state politics in very interesting ways. Similarly, one is apt to learn a great deal from the authors' coverage of topics that typically receive scant attention elsewhere; the legislative powers to regulate currency and foreign affairs are exemplary in this regard. In addition, there are praiseworthy mechanical attributes of the book, the most notable of which are embedded topical links within the text, references directing the reader to the appropriate pages elsewhere in the text where further details can be found. As a result, one can easily move from one section of the book to another to see related topics or similar subjects treated in other contexts (e.g., the treatment of the commerce clause has page references pointing the reader to portions of other chapters that cover such subjects as federal police powers, state regulation of commerce, and presidential attempts to influence the Court's decision making). The authors have also gathered a tremendous collection of historical photographs, political cartoons, and the like, all of which nicely complement the text. Beyond these general redeeming qualities, Biskupic and Witt also unearth a remarkable number of fascinating facts about the Supreme Court. Who knew, for instance, that, as the impeachment trial of his fellow Federalist Samuel Chase drew near, John Marshall was so fearful of being similarly targeted that he contemplated disavowing judicial review as an expedient to placate the Jeffersonians and preserve his own job on the Court? This is indicative of the rich detail that the authors bring to this volume. Of course, as with any book of this kind, readers are bound to have their own idiosyncratic complaints. In my case, I thought that some issues did not receive the appropriate level of emphasis: for all its importance, MARBURY v. MADISON (1803) was somewhat overdone, while the considerable implications of MARTIN v. HUNTER'S LESSEE (1816) seemed understated, and an otherwise splendid chapter on federalism gave remarkably little attention to NATIONAL LEAGUE OF CITIES v. USERY (1976) and GARCIA v. SAN ANTONIO METROPOLITAN TRANSIT AUTHORITY (1985). Readers with different tastes naturally will have other minor qualms, but it is hard to imagine any reader finding major, systematic faults. Quite apart from its substance, the book's style of presentation merits some emphasis. The authors of this book, as many are no doubt aware, are award-winning reporters who have distinguished records of able coverage of the Supreme Court. This factor, I believe, proves to be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, their professional craft is clearly revealed by their commendable capacity to simplify the enormous complexities of the Court's policies. Irrespective of the subject matter, the authors have an uncanny knack for conveying to readers, in a concise and straightforward fashion, precisely what they need to know about the justices' policy as well as how that policy fits within the appropriate legal and political contexts. Simply put, the book is a model of clarity and organization and thus is eminently readable. On the other hand, as is common to journalism, the authors offer very little by way of generalization or conclusion. The "lead" invariably appears at the beginning of each chapter or section, and the story ends once all of the relevant facts have been presented; any larger lessons that one might learn--any broader social, political, or economic implications of a decision--are left entirely in the hands of the reader. No chapter attempts or even contemplates a summary. A final point should probably be made regarding truth in advertising. Congressional Quarterly is marketing this volume as a book "[w]ritten by the primary authors of 'CQ's Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court,'" thus implying that it is distinctive from the authors' earlier publication. The fact of the matter, however, is that this book IS "CQ's Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court";other than some reference materials, this book--page for page, word for word-- consists entirely of Chapters 4, 5, 6, 7, 13, 14 of that larger work. I assume that, since the book appears in paper, it is intended to serve as a textbook; it could certainly serve as such, with great benefit, but it is not presented that way. Perhaps the publisher could have been a bit more explicit about its intended use. That issue aside, this remains a wonderful volume. It is a testament to the quality of Biskupic and Witt's efforts that their original work can appear in this form and stand so well on its own.

Product Details

Congressional Quarterly, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
8.51(w) x 10.95(h) x 0.89(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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