Friday, November 4, 2011

Five Chiefs

Publisher's Summary. When he resigned last June, Justice Stevens was the third longest serving Justice in American history (1975-2010)--only Justice William O. Douglas, whom Stevens succeeded, and Stephen Field have served on the Court for a longer time.

In Five Chiefs, Justice Stevens captures the inner workings of the Supreme Court via his personal experiences with the five Chief Justices--Fred Vinson, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts--that he interacted with. He reminisces of being a law clerk during Vinson's tenure; a practicing lawyer for Warren; a circuit judge and junior justice for Burger; a contemporary colleague of Rehnquist; and a colleague of current Chief Justice John Roberts. Along the way, he will discuss his views of some the most significant cases that have been decided by the Court from Vinson, who became Chief Justice in 1946 when Truman was President, to Roberts, who became Chief Justice in 2005.

Packed with interesting anecdotes and stories about the Court, Five Chiefs is an unprecedented and historically significant look at the highest court in the United States.

Review. Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson occasionally sports one. Conservative commentator George Will wouldn’t be caught dead without one. And Justice John Paul Stevens is a devotee too. Yes, they are all bow-tie loving dudes! Nowadays, apart from black tie affairs, the bow tie is largely absent from the modern man’s wardrobe. This explains why the roaring 20’s character Thompson dons a bow-tie, but what about Will and Stevens? I have two theories: 1) they are metrosexual fashionistas; or 2) they are persnickety-professor types. Based on TV roundtable discussions I have witnessed, I have placed Will in the persnickety column and after reading Five Chiefs I have marked Stevens as persnickety too.

In Five Chiefs, a Supreme Court memoir, the recently retired Supreme Court Justice Stevens shares his personal reflections on the five recent Chief Justices: Fred Vinson (1946-1953); Earl Warren (1953-1969); Warren Burger (1969 – 1986); William Rehnquist (1986-2005); and John G. Roberts (2005 – present). The recollections vary in perspective from law clerk to practicing lawyer to Supreme Court colleague. Specifically, Stevens served as a law clerk to another Supreme Court Justice during Chief Justice Vinson’s tenure; argued before Chief Justice Warren; and was a colleague to the latter three Chiefs.

As the third longest serving Supreme Court Justice Stevens has a bevy of memories to share. Many of the anecdotes are mildly amusing, such as, the permanent ban on basketball playing (there is a basketball court directly above the Court room) while oral arguments are heard which was imposed due to the then law clerk and later Supreme Court Justice Byron White’s playing while the Court was in session. Some memories are insightful such as Chief Justice Burger’s penchant for switching votes during the decision drafting period to ensure that he was, more often than not, on the “winning” side.

Sadly, however, many of Stevens’ memories reveal an exacting and occasionally petty persona. For instance, he spends three pages disparaging a committee’s (composed of three fellow Justices) decision (made without consulting Stevens!) to rearrange the conference room furniture. Apparently, the old setting afforded more spaciousness in the center of the room; easier access to the phone; and freer mingling among the justices during coffee breaks. And at the end of Stevens’ diatribe, he confesses that the table’s new location adversely affected his hearing. Perhaps, this could have been simply noted upfront without the literary temper tantrum? Another example, involves Chief Justice Rehnquist’s decision to decorate his robe with stripes. How dare he! Stevens describes the stripes as “ostentatious and more reflective of the ancient monarchy.” Seriously? The back story is that this decision was made after Rehnquist queried his fellow justices as to whether they would like to change their robes. And while they voted an emphatic no, he modified his. Moving along, Stevens’s pettiness is on full display in his disparaging comments on Justice Thomas. His crime? Thomas had the audacity not to vote as Thurgood Marshall would have voted. Again, how dare he!

In short, although Five Chiefs is written as Stevens’ reflections of others I found it most enlightening about the author.

Review copy provided courtesy of the publisher.


  1. This one sounds entertaining to some degree given the writing style. Glad you reviewed this one for us.

  2. Hm, well not for me, but I at least enjoyed your review of it :)

  3. Literary temper tantrum. What a great term you coined! Great review!

  4. I'm not sure if this is one I wnat ot read or not. I can imagine that he has some interesting stories to tell, but three pages about moving a table does seems a bit much.