Noah Feldman, Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices

I have had the great pleasure this evening of introducing Prof. Noah Feldman on the occasion of his talk on his new book, Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices (Twelve, 2010).  Noah’s interlocutor: our great friend Christopher Lydon, former Berkman Center fellow and journalist who has led the way in print (“on the bus” with the NYT in 1972); as Boston’s leading serious TV presence (on WGBH); the voice of The Connection (on NPR and WBUR, my all-time favorite radio program); and now a pioneer of the podcasting medium (with 500,000 downloads a month of Radio Open Source, based at the Watson Center at Brown).

Noah is the Bemis Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.  He is already one of the undisputed shining stars of our generation of scholars — in law or any field.  His work is known for an almost impossible breadth and depth.  Noah’s scholarship has been influential across many domains, from international affairs, domestic politics in America, and Constitutional Law.  He’s also a popular and effective teacher, both for our students here at Harvard Law School and of the public at large, through his writing in the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.  As I read the opening passages of Scorpions, I was struck by the sense that, seventy-five years from now, our great-grand-children may well read a story as compelling as this one with Noah as a subject rather than its author.

Scorpions is an incredibly fun read — hard to put down.  (Not surprisingly, it seems already to be jumping off the shelves, if its current Amazon rank is any indication.)  He starts with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s rise to power and his assembly of an extraordinary group of four, soon-to-be-famous Supreme Court justices: Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, Robert Jackson, and William O. Douglas.  These characters turn out, each, to be as fascinating as individuals as they were influential as jurists.  The Supreme Court as an institution, and the way that we think about the Constitution, were changed at their hands.  The narrative that he recounts bears directly on the processes of nominating and confirming Supreme Court nominees and on the ways that the Court does (and should) work.  In his book talk, Noah emphasized a key theme that is implied throughout the book: how personality shapes the way that the law is made.  There is great insight in this book as to fights over the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment; Brown v. Board of Education; the law in wartime; the rule of law itself; and much more.

Setting aside the obvious interest that this book will hold for lawyers, what is most compelling about the book is the way that Noah intertwines so many weighty themes together into a single story about these four men and their President.  Noah weaves together a whole host of major topics, beyond the law itself, of the twentieth century: war, international relations, domestic politics, governance, cultural struggles, religion, social class, crime, the terrorism of the Italian anarchists, ambition and rivalry.

As Noah put it during the book talk — prompted by Christopher Lydon’s incisive questions — Roosevelt’s Presidency was “a completely different world than the one we live in today.”  He writes in a way that makes these stories accessible from a presentist perspective.  (As a law professor, “I’m not the sort of historian who says he can’t address presentist concerns,” Noah says.)  Another great quote from Noah, reflecting on the hope that we’d confirm some “flawed people” to future Supreme Courts: “I’d hope to be a poster-child for flawed people.”  I learned a great deal from the time well-spent in reading Noah’s important new book.

(The video of this informative conversation between Noah and Chris, which was recorded, should eventually be published online by HLS on our YouTube channel, I’d imagine.  And for a different, not-so-positive, take on the book, Noah pointed verbally to the WSJ’s recent review.)

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