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May Book of the Month: Dissent and the Supreme Court

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Dissent and the Supreme CourtDissent and the Supreme Court: Its Role in the Court’s History and the Nation’s Constitutional Dialogue
by Melvin I. Urofsky
Reviewed by Tony Pelczynski, Reference Librarian


Dissent and the Supreme Court, by legal historian and professor of constitutional history Melvin Urofsky, is a dense but lively examination of the evolution of the written dissent in U.S. Supreme Court Constitutional jurisprudence. In less skillful hands, such a topic might not spark much excitement; here, Urofsky manages to keep things moving along briskly enough for the casual reader.

After beginning the book with a relatively brief but informative introduction, including side-trips explaining concurring and “seriatim” (separately-written) opinions, Urofsky traces the history of U.S. Supreme Court dissent largely chronologically, with chapters devoted to particularly significant cases and prolific dissenters (including Louis Brandeis, the subject of a separate Urofsky biography). Early on, Urofsky lays out the historical arguments for and against the very idea of dissenting judicial opinions. To grossly oversimplify, this debate breaks down to something along the lines of: dissent (in the author’s words) “weakens the force of the decision and detracts from the court’s institutional prestige”; versus (quoting Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes) “[a] dissent in a court of last resort is an appeal to the brooding spirit of the law, to the intelligence of a future day, when a later decision may possibly correct the error into which the dissenting judge believes the court to have been betrayed.” The tension between these competing beliefs regarding the role of the judicial dissent, and how that tension has played out on the Court, provides the focus of Dissent and the Supreme Court.

Dissent CourthouseThroughout the book, Urofsky pays particular attention to dissenting opinions that have directly impacted later Supreme Court jurisprudence in areas of universal national concern. For example, he succinctly explains how dissents written in the 1883 Civil Rights Cases provided the analytical framework for the Court’s later upholding of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Likewise, Urofsky devotes an entire chapter to Brandeis’ famed dissent in Olmstead v. U.S., a 1928 case in which the Court upheld the conviction of a Prohibition-era bootlegger convicted on the basis of what would now be considered illegally-obtained wiretapped telephone conversations. According to Urofsky, Brandeis’ dissent ultimately “reinvented Fourth Amendment jurisprudence,” albeit belatedly, as the Court fully adopted Brandeis’ position and overturned Olmstead completely in 1967.

While the significance and role of the dissenting opinion has waxed and waned over time, we are currently living in an era where, by the author’s accounting, four out of five U.S. Supreme Court decisions include one or more dissenting opinions. And since the book’s original publication in 2015, the Court (and, perhaps, the nation) may have become even more ideologically divided. Clearly, judicial dissent has become a ubiquitous feature of U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. To help make sense of it all, Urofsky has written a well-researched and highly readable examination of the history of judicial dissent in U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence, its evolution and function over time, and why it matters.

Dissent and the Supreme Court was generously donated by Shannon K. Mauer of Duane Morris LLP, as part of our February Book Drive.

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