Recent Biographies of Supreme Court Justices

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No shortage exists of books about the United States Supreme Court and its justices. While many books focus on past cases, the Court’s decision-making process, or inside secrets of the Court, one subset of books focusing on the Supreme Court are biographies of the justices.

Several new biographies of Supreme Court justices have been released over the last year, specifically biographies of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and Chief Justice John Roberts.

Justice Ginsburg—Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life by Jane Sherron De Hart

Past books have focused on various aspects of Justice Ginsburg’s life, so readers may be surprised that Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life is the first full-length biography of the justice.

The author of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life, Jane Sherron De Hart, originally began this project with plans to focus on Justice Ginsburg’s time as a civil rights lawyer, with the justice providing the author access to her litigation archives, as well as providing multiple interviews to the author between 2000 and 2005. Over time, though, De Hart transformed the book into a full-length biography. While Justice Ginsburg’s official biographers are still at work on their biography, so the justice limited what she shared with Hart, “De Hart has written an excellent biography based on archives and interview with colleagues and friends.”

Jeffrey Rosen, A Notorious Advocate for Gender Equality, Wash. Post (Nov. 8, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/a-notorious-advocate-for-gender-equality/2018/11/08/4c97594e-dea6-11e8-b732-3c72cbf131f2_story.html?utm_term=.41c57834b64e [https://perma.cc/ND9J-6PXX]   

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Justice O’Connor—First: Sandra Day O’Connor by Evan Thomas

In First: Sandra Day O’Connor, author Evan Thomas explores the woman who came before Justice Ginsburg on the Supreme Court: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. In writing the book, the O’Connor family provided Thomas with access to Justice O’Connor’s papers and encouraged law clerks and colleagues to speak with Thomas. The resulting book encompasses Justice O’Connor’s personal and professional life, from growing up on a ranch on the Arizona-New Mexico border to her days on the Supreme Court. While at the Supreme Court, Justice O’Connor served as an important swing vote on a number of issues. Fortunately for the reader, “Thomas avoids the case-by-case death march that is the plague of judicial biographies, and by focusing on a handful of decisions he gives a clear sense of how she understood her role.”  

Jeffrey Toobin, An Intimate Portrait of Sandra Day O’Connor, First Woman on the Supreme Court, N.Y. Times (Mar. 18, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/18/books/review/evan-thomas-first-sandra-day-oconnor.html [https://perma.cc/AQ6Q-W5AK]

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Justice Roberts—The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts by Joan Biskupic

Rounding out the list of recent Supreme Court justice biographies is Joan Biskupic’s book The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts. Biskupic is not new to the Supreme Court justice biography scene—the CNN legal analyst has written biographies of Justices O’Connor, Scalia, and Sotomayor. In preparing this book, she spoke with Justice Roberts for over 20 hours, spread across seven interviews.

Justice Roberts has been criticized by both the left and the right—by the left for his decision in Citizens United, among many others, and by the right for upholding the Affordable Care Act in 2012. In tracing his upbringing, education, and career, Biskupic finds Justice Roberts pulled between two desires: one to move the Court right on a number of issues, and one to preserve respect for the Court as a nonpolitical institution. The biography is “assiduously reported and briskly written” and “offers new behind-the-scene details.”

Adam Cohen, The “Enigma” Who Is the Chief Justice of the United States, N.Y. Times (Mar. 18, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/18/books/review/joan-biskupic-chief-life-turbulent-times-chief-justice-john-roberts.html [https://perma.cc/N3DY-3DY5]

David M. Shribman, John Roberts: The Focus Is on the Man in the Middle, Boston Globe (Mar. 22, 2019), https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2019/03/21/john-roberts-focus-man-middle/QGR73o3DCVOIb8Txr0FatL/story.html [https://perma.cc/2ZEH-Z3GM]