Three Books about the Roberts Court

Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the ConstitutionTribe, Laurence; Matz, Joshua; Henry Holt & Co. (2014)
In the Balance: Law and Politics on the Roberts Court Mark Tushnet, WW Norton & Co (2013)
The Roberts Court: The Struggle for the Constitution Marcia Coyle; Simon & Schuster (2013)


The U.S. Supreme Court recently entered its eleventh term with Chief Justice John Roberts at the helm at the Court’s seventeenth Chief Justice. During Robert’s tenure, the Court has been at the center of important and often controversial legal battles, from same sex marriage to the Affordable Care Act to the use of race in affirmative action.

Several authors have delved into the inner workings of the Robert Court, which is often described as ideologically divided, but is far more complex than that. The most recent is Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Metz,  which was published in 2014.

Given that Tribe is a Harvard law professor, and Metz is one of his former students, the book has a more academic tone than any of the others on the subject. However, notwithstanding it’s more academic flavor it is still both readable and compelling. As described by the New York Times, “The strength of the book is its painstaking explanation of all sides of the critical cases, giving full voice and weight to conservative and liberal views alike.”

In breaking down the tenure of Chief Justice Roberts, the Tribe book examines the underlying social philosophy of the Justices on a number of core constitutional principles and how their thinking shapes their legal conclusions. In doing so, Uncertain Justice highlights that even though the justices may all be defined as either “liberal” or “conservative,” the Court’s decisions are highly unpredictable. As the authors write in the prologue, the future of the country and the Court are “marked by uncertainty, but one all the more thrilling for its lack of a predetermined outcome.”

For general readers looking for one book about the Roberts Court, this is not it. However, for lawyers and those who follow the court, this is an insightful summary of the last ten years and an important book that will deepen your understanding of how the justices might think about various issues.

In the Balance: Law and Politics on the Roberts Court, Mark Tushnet focuses on the partisan ideals that often influence the Court. He argues that each justice “has developed ways of thinking about the Constitution’s meaning in partisan settings,” and if “the stakes are high enough, justices will set aside the limits that law puts on what a justice can do,” citing Bush v. Gore as an example.

While many describe Tushnet, a Harvard law professor, as liberal leaning, he provides balanced analysis of the Roberts Court’s key decisions. Like Tribe, he concedes that the balance on the Roberts Court is close enough that “no one should take large bets on specific outcomes.”

While Tushnet also has an obvious academic leaning, his book tends to focus on the dynamics between and among the justices. This is a good book for understanding the relationships between the justices and to develop a feel for how they might vote with one another on various issues they consider.

Marcia Coyle’s 2013 book, The Roberts Court: The Struggle for the Constitution, revolves around four key 5-4 decisions decided during Roberts’ leadership of the Court. The cases tackled issues such as campaign finance reform, gun ownership rights, the health care reform law, and school integration.

In discussing these landmark cases, Coyle focuses on the people behind them, including the parties, the lawyers, and justices that decided their fates. As the chief Washington correspondent for The National Law Journal and a seasoned court reporter, Coyle provides a unique perspective into the Court and its Chief Justice.

“Roberts has acted with a boldness that angered those on the left on issues of race, guns and campaign finance, and with restraint and modesty at times that frustrated those on the right,” Coyle notes. “With the health care decision, the Kennedy Court faded into the background, and the Roberts Court firmly emerged.”

If you only read one book about the Robert’s court this is the book to read. This is more of a book from a Supreme Court practitioner’s point of view. Coyle has managed to get Supreme Court insiders to talk to her and share their insights about the court with her readers. Her approach makes this an excellent book for non-lawyers and lawyers who do not keep current with Supreme Court decisions and who want an update.

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