This week all eyes (and ears) are focused on the U. S. Senate Judiciary hearings for the next Supreme Court Justice and just in time for all the action, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McGregor Burns' new book is hitting the shelves: Packing the Court: The Rise of Judicial Power and the Coming Crisis of the Supreme Court. Opening with an engaging history of the early court, Burns devotes most of the book to examining the power and partisanship of the Court in the 20th century. The title term "packing the court" refers to the bill that Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent to Congress in 1937, proposing that the six presiding Supreme Court justices over 70 be forced to resign, leaving six empty seats to be filled. (To listen to FDR's fireside chat on the topic, delivered on March 9, 1937, click here.) Burns doesn't hesitate to offer his opinions, but it is his overview of the court that makes it a compelling read.
Arguably, the greatest judge of the 20th century not appointed to the Supreme Court was Learned Hand, a peer of Holmes, Brandeis and Cardozo. While his legal legacy is both vast and respected, it is the man behind the robe that proves most facinating. Gerald Gunther's excellent biography describes in detail a man who was plagued by a lifetime of private doubts about his law practice, his marriage and his judicial work, yet wrote some of the most influencial legal opinions of his day. His biography offers insight into the role of judges in a democratic society, a much-discussed topic during the current hearings.