A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE SUPREME COURT, by Peter Irons, Viking, 512 pages, $32.95.
The title of Peter Irons’ book, A People’s History of the Supreme Court, offers the promise that it will recount the lives of the ordinary people who pressed their cases to the nation’s highest court. The author’s research is meticulous and worthy, but the intriguing premise (to humanize cases decided in a courtroom far removed from most citizens) does not hit its stride until far into the book. Until then the book is lean on the lives and circumstances of the real people Irons promises to write about and heavy on the dissection of constitutional law and the political lives of judges and lawyers, obscure and famous.
Yet the zealous, reluctant, and sometimes accidental heroes whom Irons does describe are compelling. He creates a poignant portrait of seventh-grader Lillian Gobitas, who risked the popularity and achievement so valued in adolescence by her decision not to salute the American flag in school. Parents Levi Pearson and Harry and Liza Briggs lost everything when they pressed their South Carolina school district to bus their children. Their cases, along with the more famous Brown v. Board of Education, brought an end to school segregation in 1954.
Irons also includes accounts of some personal soul-searching by a number of the judges, but these human moments are few. The author instead favors the political history of their appointments and critiques of their cases. By straying so far from his goal to write about the schoolchildren, black parents, and working women whose legal predicaments helped shape our laws, Irons has missed an opportunity to tell a much more compelling story.
Michael Lopez is a reporter at the Times Union in Albany, New York.