The best books about Supreme Court cases (and the stories behind them)

The Books I Picked & Why

Simple Justice: The History of Brown V. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality

By Richard Kluger

Simple Justice: The History of Brown V. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality

Why this book?

How do you get the Supreme Court to revisit its 1896 ruling that upheld Jim Crow laws as “separate but equal”? That was the question that divided officials in the NAACP, and Kluger’s book shows them coalescing around a plan that aims first at racist admissions policies in professional and graduate institutions before turning to the even more politically sensitive matter of segregated public schools. To pursue this incremental strategy, civil-rights activists developed Howard University’s law school with the goal of training black lawyers to mount desegregation cases. The most prominent of them — the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall, later a Supreme Court justice himself — ended up arguing the Brown v. Board of Education appeal that in 1954 led the court to rule the separate-but-equal doctrine was unconstitutional.


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Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment

By Anthony Lewis

Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment

Why this book?

Anthony Lewis’s Gideon’s Trumpet may be the most famous journalistic account of a single Supreme Court case, but his Make No Law has the more compelling origin story. A representative of the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South walks into The New York Times headquarters to take out an advertisement. When the full-page ad, headlined “Heed Their Rising Voices,” was published, a number of southern officials took issue with how it described their actions with regard to protesters; one of them, Montgomery, Alabama, police commissioner L. B. Sullivan decided to sue the Times for libel. A local all-white jury ruled in Sullivan’s favor, but the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964 reversed the decision, enshrining a high standard for public figures to sue for defamation. Lewis, who covered the case for the Times, delivers an account that only tracks the maturity of press freedoms in the American system but the crucial role that media played as both observers of and participants in the civil rights movement.


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Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe V. Wade

By David J. Garrow

Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe V. Wade

Why this book?

In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that the Constitution guaranteed a “right to privacy” as it struck down Connecticut’s longstanding ban on the sale and use of birth control. (Amazing trivia: the state legislator who drafted the state’s 1879 anti-contraceptive law was P.T. Barnum.) Garrow’s history recounts the decades-long efforts of Connecticut activists to challenge the restriction, and how lawyers shifted their choice of plaintiffs from doctors asserting the law interfered with their ability to provide medical advice to married women claiming a right to privacy within their marriages. In the years following Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court gradually expanded that novel privacy doctrine, extending it to the intimate decisions of unmarried people, and eventually to cover the right to an abortion with Roe v. Wade.


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Chadha: The Story of an Epic Constitutional Struggle

By Barbara Hinkson Craig

Chadha: The Story of an Epic Constitutional Struggle

Why this book?

The issue before the court in 1983’s Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha concerned one of the grandest principles of the American project, the separation of powers, but the facts of the case were all at a tragically human scale. Jagdish Chadha had come to the United States as a student, but when the INS determined he had overstayed his visa it was not clear what to do with him. Born in colonial Kenya to Indian parents and then moved to the United States, explains Craig, “he was not deportable but he had no visa, no papers of any kind to show prospective employers.” After Congress stepped in to intervene with the INS’s handling of Chadha’s case, using a fairly obscure mechanism known as the “legislative veto,” litigators working with Ralph Nader volunteered to represent him; they saw an avenue to pull back lawmakers’ ability to meddle with administration policy in other regulatory areas. As Chadha’s case moved towards the Supreme Court, not only the system of checks and balances hung in doubt but the fate of one man for whom defeat would mean potentially permanent statelessness.


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Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America

By Adam Winkler

Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America

Why this book?

Heller v. District of Columbia may have been brought by one Washington police officer challenging a local law that prohibited him from keeping a working handgun in his home. But as Gunfight demonstrates, the outcome before the Supreme Court was one “the gun rights movement long hoped for.” Winkler shows how a 1977 coup within the National Rifle Association transformed a group founded by Civil War veterans to teach marksmanship and gun safety into a civil-liberties organization dedicated to an absolutist interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. By the time Heller reached the Supreme Court in 2008, what would have once been a radical view of the Constitution — that it includes a fundamental right to possess a handgun for self-defense — had graduated into one acceptable to a majority of the court.


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