Summary of Scorpions by Noah Feldman
Scorpions is a wonderful book that I highly recommend to anyone interested in this era in US history, in the supreme court, or in the constitution.
What Scorpions is about
Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed nine justices to the Supreme Court; four of these men have become known as great justices: Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter and Robert Jackson. They came from very different backgrounds, but they started as allies and supporters of the New Deal, over time they each developed quite different notions of what the constitution means. These differences resound today. At the time, they created tremendous animosities among the justices, and gave truth to the quotation that the Supreme Court is like “nine scorpions in a bottle”.
Scorpions traces the relationships among these four men and how those played out in their decisions about some of the great cases of the era, and their relationships with other people and the rest of the world. Although there are full biographies of each of these men, and books about many of the cases they decided, in this book Noah Feldman shows how the four great justices played against each other and how their philosophies developed in conflict with each other.
Taking the justices in alphabetical order, Scorpions discusses
Hugo Black, a southerner who joined the Ku Klux Klan to become Senator, then fully repudiated that organization and went on to become the most radical supporter of equal rights, and one of the justices who thought that the decision in Brown v. Board of Education was flawed because it allowed integration to happen too slowly.
Black had much less academic training than Frankfurter or Douglas, but he didn’t let that stop him from becoming a scholar of the constitution. His philosophy was simple: The constitution means what it says. So, since the first amendment prohibits the government from infringing on free speech, it means any speech, no matter how odious.
William O. Douglas was a westerner who came east to go to college and law school. His personal life was a mess (for instance, he was married four times, each time to a younger woman, and his political ambitions were never fully satisfied) but his brilliance was profound. He became the most radical member of the court, especially with regard to freedoms, and was instrumental in applying the constitution to environmental law.
Felix Frankfurter was born in Vienna and grew up on the lower east side of New York. A brilliant student, he graduated 3rd in his class at Harvard Law, and was appointed to the “scholar’s seat” on the court. His philosophy was one of judicial restraint – that the courts should not take on any role that might be properly that of the legislature or the president. He held to this fairly rigidly, and it led him to move from the liberal to the conservative side of the court, often in sharp conflict with his own views of what was right.
Robert Jackson was born in a small town in rural western New York. Like Black, he lacked the academic brilliance of Frankfurter or Douglas, but, unlike Black, he didn’t seem to crave it. His philosophy was one of pragmatism – the court should rule with strong regard to the practical effects of its rulings.
Scorpions also covers many cases. Two in particular stand out. One is now regarded as a disaster and the other as a triumph. The disaster was Korematsu vs. US, in which the court said that the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II did not violate the constitution. In this case, the justices twisted themselves into knots trying to support the presidential decree allowing this. Even Black, the strongest opponent of segregation and race-discrimination, managed to say that the case was not about race or ethnicity but about loyalty.
The triumph was Brown v. Board of Education, which held that separate schools for Black children were necessarily unequal. Here Frankfurter carefully manipulate the court into a unanimous ruling, but one that, as a result, was flawed and confusing.
In short, Scorpions is a brilliant book about four brilliant but deeply flawed men, and how they changed America from the Supreme Court.