Thursday, April 12, 2007

Book Review: "Of Power and Right"

So here I was browsing through a bookstore when I saw that they had a section for books on discount. Now I am always a sucker for good books at reduced prices, so off I went. There was this book lying there with a black cover that seemed to be about the US Supreme Court. Now I have always been interested in legal histories and constitutional law, and so I picked the book up. I have never regretted the move.
The book is called "Of Power and Right: Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and America's Constitutional Revolution" by Howard Ball and Philip J Cooper (1992).
I am not a citizen of the US, nor am I affected by the laws governing the US, so why am I writing a review of the book?
The book presents an epic view of the US legal and social society through the goings-on in the US Supreme Court from the time of the New Deal to the removal of the race-segregation laws, and to the emergence of cases dealing with the rights of the state (government) vs. the rights of the individual. There are essentially 2 streams of thoughts about the power of the judicial system: Judges need to respect that the legislature is the expression of the will of the people and not try their own interpretation, vs. the interpretation that the role of a judge is to hold the constitution supreme and effectively use this as the benchmark for determining the validity of a law.
Justice Hugo Black was a believer in the first thesis (power), while justice William Douglas believed in the second one (right). The book details their initial career before their movement into the Supreme Court, and then really comes into its own. The interactions between the Justices, between the executive and the Justices, and the process (including persuasion and disagreements) used by the Supreme Court to come out with a judgement is all brought out in great detail, and helps to provide a high level of understanding. The cases dealing with the internment of the American citizens of Japanese descent during the second world war, the military tribunals dealing with German spies caught on American land, and specifically the most famous case of the racial segregation era (Brown vs. Board of Education) are all brought out in great detail in this book.
For a layman, the legal and judicial system is wrapped up in mystery when it comes to its intricacies. This book will go a long way in helping people understand how the judicial system works, and how the opinions of Justices drive the US Supreme Court.

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