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

Who am I?

Sasha Issenberg has been a newspaper reporter, magazine writer, and editor, and teaches in the political science department at UCLA. He is the author of four books, on topics as varied as the global sushi business, medical tourism, and the science of political campaigns. The most recent tackles his most sweeping subject yet: the long and unlikely campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in the United States. One of his favorite discoveries in the decade he spent researching the book was that a movement that ended with a landmark Supreme Court decision had been catalyzed by a Honolulu activist’s public-relations stunt sprawling out of control twenty-five years earlier.

I wrote...

The Engagement: America's Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

By Sasha Issenberg,

Book cover of The Engagement: America's Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

What is my book about?

On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that state bans on gay marriage were unconstitutional, making same-sex unions legal throughout the United States. But the road to victory was much longer than many know. The Engagement traces the emergence of same-sex marriage as a political issue to 1990 in Honolulu, where a petty power struggle for control of a Honolulu gay-pride planning committee inadvertently helped introduce it to the state’s courts, and religious conservatives elevated it to the national stage with the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

The Engagement follows the coast-to-coast conflict through courtrooms and war rooms, bedrooms, and boardrooms, to shed light on every aspect of a political and legal struggle that divided Americans like few other issues have. It adds up to a secret history of the modern culture wars that O: The Oprah Magazine called “Part Grisham-esque legal thriller, part Sorkin-esque political drama, and part Maddow-esque historical yarn.”

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Richard Kluger,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Simple Justice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Simple Justice is generally regarded as the classic account of the U.S. Supreme Court's epochal decision outlawing racial segregation and the centerpiece of African-Americans' ongoing crusade for equal justice under law.

The 1954 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education brought centuries of legal segregation in this country to an end. It was and remains, beyond question, one of the truly significant events in American history, "probably the most important American government act of any kind since the Emancipation Proclamation," in the view of constitutional scholar Louis H. Pollak. The Brown decision climaxed along, torturous…

Book cover of Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment

Why did I love 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.

By Anthony Lewis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Make No Law as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A crucial and compelling account of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the landmark Supreme Court case that redefined libel, from the Pulitzer Prize–winning legal journalist Anthony Lewis.

The First Amendment puts it this way: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." Yet, in 1960, a city official in Montgomery, Alabama, sued The New York Times for libel—and was awarded $500,000 by a local jury—because the paper had published an ad critical of Montgomery's brutal response to civil rights protests.

The centuries of legal precedent behind the Sullivan case and the U.S. Supreme Court's…

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

Why did I love 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.

By David J. Garrow,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Liberty and Sexuality as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Liberty and Sexuality" is a definitive account of the legal and political struggles that created the right to privacy and won constitutional protection for a woman's right to choose abortion. Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established that right, grew out of not only efforts to legalize abortion but also out of earlier battles against statutes that criminalized birth control. When the U.S. Supreme Court in 1965, in Griswold v. Connecticut, voided such a prohibition as an outrageous intrusion upon marital privacy, it opened a previously unimagined constitutional door: the opportunity to argue that a…

Book cover of Chadha: The Story of an Epic Constitutional Struggle

Why did I love 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.

By Barbara Hinkson Craig,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Chadha as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1973 Jagdish Chadha found himself a man without a country, the victim of the decolonization of Kenya where, as a Kenyan of Indian descent, he was not allowed to return after having spent six years in the U.S. as a student. Barbara Hinkson Craig describes Chadha's effort to achieve legal residency in the U.S. and shows how it led to the Supreme Court decision to overrule the legislative veto, adjusting the balance of powers in the United States government.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Adam Winkler,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Gunfight as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Gunfight is a timely work examining America's four-centuries-long political battle over gun control and the right to bear arms. In this definitive and provocative history, Adam Winkler reveals how guns-not abortion, race, or religion-are at the heart of America's cultural divide. Using the landmark 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller-which invalidated a law banning handguns in the nation's capital-as a springboard, Winkler brilliantly weaves together the dramatic stories of gun-rights advocates and gun-control lobbyists, providing often unexpected insights into the venomous debate that now cleaves our nation.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Brown v. Board of Education, law, and Europe?

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