America's Supreme Court: Making Democracy Work

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OUP Oxford, Dec 9, 2010 - Law - 288 pages
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The American Supreme Court is one of the most powerful and controversial judicial bodies in the world. The Court has assumed the role of settling fundamental issues of American social policy through its power of constitutional interpretation, and its rulings are among the most divisive, and controversial events in American political life. How did the American court come to acquire such power? How does it maintain its authority and public confidence in the face of deep political divides. In this book Stephen Breyer, a leading intellect in the current Court, gives an insider's view on how America's Supreme Court came to acquire such a prominent role in American public life, how the Court operates, and how it can continue to maintain the trust of the American public as the final arbiter of the values underlying America's democratic constitution. Breyer introduces the history of the Court by telling the stories of the landmark cases that defined the role the Court would play in American politics. He then offers a powerful restatement of his views on how a constitutional court should fulfil its function as final interpreter of a democratic constitution. In doing so, he examines some of the Court's most controversial recent decisions, on issues such as the legality of detention in Guantanamo Bay, and the scope of protection of gun ownership in Heller. The book offers a unique introduction to how the American Supreme Court does and should operate, invaluable to all students of American law and politics, and anyone looking to understand the workings of American politics.

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Making Democracy Work
by Stephen Breyer
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0-19-960673-3
An appreciation by Phillip Taylor MBE and Elizabeth Taylor of Richmond Green Chambers
Written by a judge for lawyers and non-lawyers alike, this book sets out to explain what the American Supreme Court does and how it works. Breyer meets these aims brilliantly!
In considering the recent creation of a Supreme Court in the UK which replaced the House of Lords as the court of final appeal, the publication of this volume in the UK by the Oxford University Press is nothing if not timely and welcome.
The author, Stephen Breyer – an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court – offers the authoritative comment of the indisputably knowledgeable insider. Reading through the text certain increased our understanding, not only of the workings of the American Supreme Court, but of American politics and political history as well.
No specialist legal knowledge is required to grasp the essence of this book -- only a desire to understand the role of what the publishers term ‘one of the most controversial and powerful judicial bodies in the world.’
Controversial? Yes, more than a few of the court’s decisions have been so, the most notorious being the infamous Dred Scott decision some 150 years ago, which only served to entrench racial discrimination in many parts of the USA, so much so that it’s often blamed as the catalyst which led to the American Civil War. The book covers the background and the aftermath of this decision very well.
In the ‘Little Rock’ case, however, about 100 years later, the Court in our view, redeemed itself in one of the landmark decisions which led to the de-segregation of schools nationwide and eventually to the success, for the most part, of the civil rights movement. The book deals objectively with a number of other pivotal and more contemporary issues as well, including Guantanamo Bay, which is an added bonus for the international jurisprudent.
Like any human institution, the American Supreme Court is not infallible. But despite its flaws, it remains a paradigm of how a judicial body has augmented its power by maintaining trust in a huge, diverse and complex nation. Taking a global perspective, what is really controversial is that many, or most other countries, don’t have a Supreme Court of this stature at all – which includes the UK of course, up to the back end of 2009.
Breyer certainly strikes a responsive chord, following recent events in the Middle East with his comment that ‘in earlier times both here and abroad, individuals and communities settled their differences not in courtrooms under the law, but on the streets with violence…. Americans treasure the customs and institutions that have helped us find the better way.’
The Supreme Court’s powers to ‘interpret the [US] constitution authoritatively and to strike down as unconstitutional, laws enacted by Congress’ took a long time in coming. This book’s description of the process and the journey is simple and compelling.
Breyer is adept at explaining issues of mind boggling complexity in the language of the layman. In the light of its subtitle, this important book does a creditable job of explaining how America’s Supreme Court continues in its role of ‘making democracy work’, to build trust and retain power and make democracy work.

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About the author (2010)

Stephen Breyer took his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994. He is the author of Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution (OUP/Knopf 2005)

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