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Jeffrey Toobin
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court
Doubleday / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-385-51640-2
Publication Date:09-18-2007
370 Pages; $25.95
Date Reviewed: 10-18-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  Non-Fiction  

The stakes could not be higher; the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. The men and women involved could not be more accomplished; but they're also just men and women, with quirks and families and lives. The decisions they make directly affect the lives of millions of fellow Americans. A sea-change is at hand, changing the nature and the composition of the body in question. The world is watching, but there is much hidden from our sight.

If you pitched it as a thriller, no publisher would buy it; the story is far too incredible to believe. But Jeffrey Toobin's 'The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court,' is assiduously researched non-fiction with the narrative grip of a relentless page-turner. Toobin is a master storyteller, even as he explores a public world whose decisions and outcomes are well-known. The tension is constant, the characters are riveting, intimately created and superbly observed, and the pace, though it unfolds over years, feels relentless. This is history with an emphasis on story, and Toobin has managed to craft a superb reading experience that doubles as document essential for those who would live and participate in functioning democracy.

We meet he justices on the steps leading up to the Supreme Court, bearing the coffin of the man who had led them for so long, Chief Justice John Rehnquist. In the pages follow, Toobin takes us on a pocket history of the court in the decades that preceded, and how they shaped each of the members of the court at the time when the book was written in 2007. It does not matter that we've moved on since that time. Toobin is writing for the long run, not just to cover current events. The result is that the book is just as involving now as when it was written.

The core of the 'The Nine,' and what makes it such an engaging reading experience, is Toobin's ability to create the characters of his subjects. He works at two levels, personal and political. On the political side, he will show us a justice in the present, as the book was written, and then look back at how the politics of previous decades helped shape the character of the man or woman in question. He's a deft writer of political history, offering readers the right level of detail about the Federalist Society, the Warren Court and the law schools and legislatures that shaped such diverse figures as Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia. He creates them in a social and political landscape that he describes with verve and skill.

We also see the Justices as human beings, with families and lives outside the courts. Their husbands, wives, or scholarly friends — or the lack thereof — all shape the Justices and inform their decisions. The men and women in the background are a gallery of familiar names that rose to prominence (and in some cases, infamy).

The through-line of tension that drives the book is the slow change that unfolds in the past Warren era, as Republican party moves farther to the right and seeks to create a Supreme Court that will help them do so. At the center of this fight is Sandra Day O'Connor, and Toobin's characterization of her offers a portrait of an American heroine in the making. It's fascinating, compelling reading.

Toobin's accomplishments in 'The Nine' are many; it's a classic work of history that has already stood the test of time; it's a book that should be required reading for those who wish to be informed voters in any year; and it's just as compelling a thriller as any work of fiction. These strengths are secondary, though, to the simple fact that this is a great story, told well. 'The Nine' is full of the exciting, unstoppable stuff of life.

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