- A Constitutional History of the U.S. Supreme Court by Richard J. Regan
In A Constitutional History of the U.S. Supreme Court, Richard J. Regan, professor emeritus of political science at Fordham University, provides a concise overview and a general history of the nation’s highest court. The intended audience is “general readers and students in courses on constitutional history and politics” (p. ix). Regan insists that the book is “not designed for lawyers or political scientists,” which makes this a challenging review for me to write because I am a law professor with a Ph.D. in political science (p. ix).
The history of the U.S. Supreme Court is typically categorized by chief justice. Regan adheres to this convention in his book’s organization, with the notable exceptions of the three Courts that preceded that of John Marshall (he refers to the John Jay, John Rutledge, and Oliver Ellsworth Courts as “The Federalist Court”) and six Courts that he combines into three (the Salmon P. Chase and Morrison Waite Courts, the Edward Douglass White and William Howard Taft Courts, and the Harlan Fiske Stone and Frederick M. Vinson Courts). Each chapter begins with brief biographies of the justices on the particular Court in question (for example, for the Melville Fuller Court, the justices profiled range from the legendary Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. to the largely insignificant William Moody). These biographies are informative and full of interesting tidbits, but occasionally they omit important details. For example, Regan fails to mention that Ruth Bader Ginsburg served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for more than a decade before her appointment to the Supreme Court, and that she was also a successful women’s rights lawyer.
However, the bulk of each chapter is devoted to summaries of the leading decisions issued by the particular Court, and Regan has made appropriate choices about which leading decisions to include. These decisions are those typically addressed in constitutional criminal procedure courses, but their inclusion in Regan’s book is appropriate given his intended audience. Regan credits the Federalist Court, for example, with only four leading decisions (Chisholm v. Georgia , Hylton v. United States , Ware v. Hylton , and Calder v. Bull ), whereas the William H. Rehnquist Court had eighty-three. The leading decisions are further divided in each chapter by subject matter (such as religion or race), although I found what Regan characterizes as “regime” decisions to be too broad to be of much use (p. 174). [End Page 745] Each chapter closes with a summary where the leading decisions are assessed collectively in an abbreviated fashion, including via rudimentary statistics.
The book contains four appendixes: the text of the Constitution; a discussion of the Supreme Court’s system of operation; a chronological list of the justices; and a chronological list of the composition of each Court. Conspicuous by its absence is a bibliography. Six scholarly books are cited on page 370, but that is it. That number is inadequate, especially for a book that claims to be a concise overview and general history of the most powerful court in the world. Bluntly put, readers desiring more detail about a specific Court are entitled to suggestions from Regan for further reading. Some obvious choices include the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise History of the Supreme Court of the United States series, albeit at a steep price, and the more affordable University of South Carolina Press series on the history of the Supreme Court. Miscellaneous freestanding volumes of note exist, too, including my own edited collection, Seriatim: The Supreme Court Before John Marshall (New York, 1998), which covers the era that Regan calls the “Federalist Court.” Moreover, numerous books have been published about some of the more significant Courts, especially the Earl Warren Court, and about individual justices, including several classics about John Marshall and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. There are also some provocative volumes about...