Liptak On O’Connor’s New Book – “gift shop bauble”

March 30th, 2013

Very accurate:

She has a lot to say. But, the provocative title of her new book notwithstanding, she is not saying it here. Instead, she has delivered a disjointed collection of anodyne anecdotes and bar-association bromides about the history of the Supreme Court. “Out of Order” is a gift shop bauble, and its title might as well refer to how disorganized and meandering it is.

This is particularly disappointing in light of the recent string of quite good books from other justices. Antonin Scalia and Stephen G. Breyer have published competing accounts of their judicial philosophies; Sonia Sotomayor a vivid and moving memoir; and John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010, a candid account of his 35 years on the court.

O’Connor says she wrote the book in response to requests from “people across the country and across the world for my ‘insider’ perspective on the court and its goings-on.” What she has given them is institutional hagiography.

The book is short and padded. The main part, only 165 pages long, is interrupted by stock photographs and curious, unexplained editorial cartoons. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are included in an appendix. They are surely worth rereading from time to time, but their main purpose here seems to be to add some bulk to a very skimpy effort.

The ending is brutal:

The larger problem is not that Justice O’Connor’s little sketches and lessons are wrong. Quite the contrary. The problem is that they are empty. She writes, correctly, that “the court’s only weapon is its moral authority.” But she refuses to give this and similar sentiments substance.

In retirement, she writes, she has “taken up the cause of promoting civics education in our nation’s schools.” But civics are just a skeleton. They need the flesh of argument to come to life, to have bite, to matter.

If you’re interested in reading more, the book is on sale in the Supreme Court’s gift shop.