When Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens died in July at what can honestly be called the ripe old age of 99, he’d been retired from the highest court in the land for nearly a decade. Stevens was appointed by President Gerald Ford back in 1975, so his tenure ranks as one of the longest in Supreme Court history, beaten out only by Stephen Johnson Field, who grew up in Massachusetts, was appointed by Abraham Lincoln, and never met a racist ruling he didn’t enthusiastically support, and the all-time record-holder (and Stevens’ direct predecessor), William O. Douglas, who sat on the Court for almost 37 years and was thoroughly detested by every fellow judge, ever advocate, every law clerk, and every janitor the entire time.
Douglas must surely be in the running for holding another Supreme Court-related record: the number of books written by a Justice. Douglas wrote (or slapped his name onto) dozens of such books, from travel guides to histories and cod-biographies, to that mainstay of judges: judicial writing about judicial procedure (less painful than a two-by-four upside the head as a means of inducing immediate slumber, and more reliable too).
And in 1974 and again in 1980, there appeared under Douglas’ name the two volumes of his autobiography, Go East, Young Man, and The Court Years, 1939-1975. As with any book written by a preening egomaniac about his favorite subject, these volumes make dry-syrup tough reading, but there are other reasons to find them interesting: mainly, how surprisingly seldom Supreme Court justices have written the stories of their own lives.
They’ve been writing books and cashing publisher’s checks for centuries, of course. John Jay, the nation’s first Chief Justice, may have been content to help write the DNA of the United States when he joined Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in authoring The Federalist Papers, but he would almost certainly have considered it unseemly to write a book about his time on the Court. For most of its first century, most of the Court’s justices saw fit to opine about the law, following in the footsteps of James Wilson, for instance, who published books of legal analysis and case studies toward the end of the 18th century.
Others wrote biographies, some of illustrious men (Justice William Johnson wrote a life of Nathanael Greene, for instance, and Chief Justice John Marshall wrote a multi-volume life of George Washington), some of obscure men (the aptly-named Joseph Story, another incredibly prolific Justice, even wrote a life of Samuel Dexter, bless his heart). There was even an epic poem (the wisest thing Justice Brockholst ever did was write it under a pseudonym). But by far the majority of justices who wrote books (and by far the majority of them did) wrote law books, naturally capitalizing on their most prominent area of expertise.
If we’re looking for the phenomenon of Supreme Court Justices writing books in which they are the star and main character, we must turn, predictably enough, to the 20th century – in fact, right to the beginning of the 20th century: an autobiographical sketch included in a book about Justice Henry Billings Brown, another son of Massachusetts who likewise is infamous for a racist “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. Given the fact that he wrote non-stop for six hours every day for a solid 70 years, it’s a bit amazing that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes never wrote such a book about himself, but Justice Felix Frankfurter made up the difference by writing a good half-dozen books about Holmes – in addition to producing a volume of his own “reminiscences” in 1962.
The Memoirs of Earl Warren appeared posthumously in 1977, but in the bright light of the television era, Supreme Court Justices are sought-after prizes for publishing houses. Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman ever appointed to the High Court (and the subject of Evan Thomas’ terrific new biography, First), has written two works of autobiography, Lazy B and The Majesty of the Law; Clarence Thomas wrote a memoir in 2007; Stephen Breyer wrote a judicial reform volume in 2010 that reads effectively as an autobiography; Sonia Sotomayor wrote My Beloved World in 2013, and can any sentient person doubt that Chief Justice John Roberts will write a smiling memoir or two in the 45 years he still has left to serve as Chief Justice? Whatever stigma once attached to Justices considering themselves just as worthwhile a subject as yet another life of John Marshall has clearly disappeared.
And maybe we’re all better off for that. Take Justice Stevens as an example. He began his publishing career in 1992 with a stolid book called The Bill of Rights: A Century of Progress. It’s about as exciting as it sounds. In 2011, he wrote Five Chiefs, about his long service with several Court luminaries, and it’s immediately engaging, exactly the kind of book we wish Oliver Wendell Holmes really did write. And Stevens’ full-dress autobiography, The Making of a Justice, came out earlier in 2019 (shortly before his death, although he lived long enough to see it get a full-page positive review in the New York Sunday Times Book Review, not an accolade given to many of these books, if any), and it’s a gentle, eminently sane, occasionally wry treasure of a volume, a quiet classic of judicial autobiography.
The Supreme Court is a famously paradoxical mainstay of the United States: an autocratic and almost entirely unaccountable judiciary in a democratic republic. From time immemorial, justices have been appointed as political favors, and yet the justices themselves, given a lifetime job from which only an act of God (i.e. obtaining an impeachment verdict from a Congress that can’t agree on what time of day it is) can remove them, have a long history of confounding the political intentions of their former patrons and listening to their own instincts and reading of the Constitution. Some of these justices have been scoundrels, drooling incompetents, thwarted politicians, and full-blown lunatics, but some of them have been humane, insightful, and even wise.
Authors worth hearing from, in other words. And if they all take their cues from Justice Stevens, so much the better.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer and editor living in Boston (with his inquisitive little Schnauzer Frieda). His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews, and he writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor, the National, and the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. He is a proud Weathersfield Proctor Library patron.