Bob Woodward on The Brethren


Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong take us inside the U.S. Supreme Court in The Brethren.

I’ve been on a Supreme Court reading kick recently, having read and enjoyed Joe Mathewson’s work on the “indispensable conflict” between the court and the press and Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel’s biography of legendary liberal justice William Brennan.


Part of the Brennan biography talked about the impact the publication of Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s The Brethren, which delivered on its promise to break the veil of secrecy surrounding the court’s deliberations.  While Brennan was not portrayed in nearly as unsympathetic light as Chief Justice Warren Burger, whose overtly political and heavy-handed actions repelled nearly all the other justices, the inclusion of several negative statements he made about the chief disturbed him.

I took out The Brethren from the library last night, and, while I may not finish it, do recommend it to those interested in learning more about how the nation’s highest court actually operates.

The book opens in 1969, shortly before then-President Richard M. Nixon appointed Burger to fill the court’s top spot, and then covers each of the following seven years until the end of the 1976 term.

I read the material about the first year.

Although the book understandably does not focus as intently or intimately on Brennan, it does give a panoptic view of life inside the chambers.

It is an often unattractive vision.

This was a year in which in which a number of the court’s leading liberals like Hugo Black and William Douglas and counterparts like John Marshall Harlan were dealing with the ravages of age and, the authors imply, increased ill temper. Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first black justice, is portrayed as barely engaged in his work, save when a school desegregation course is taken by the court.

Yet, as mentioned above, Burger comes off the worst.

Beyond the portrayal of individual justices, the book also explains, and then takes the reader through, the extensive give and take of hearing, drafting and issuing an opinion.

Rather than the province of abstract ideas, this is very political territory in the “small p” sense of the word.  Legal reasoning, judicial philosophy, personality and individual relationships all play a role in what questions the court chooses to address, how they rule, who dissents and who concurs.

It’s a fascinating process thoroughly reported and ably written by the indefatigable and relentless Woodward, who, the authors of the Brennan biography note, somehow for close to 40 years has managed to get Washington sources who think they will be able to spin the story to reveal more than they anticipate and have less impact than what they imagined.

Joe Mathewson writes in his book about the continued push to open the court’s deliberations more widely to the public. If those efforts succeed, they will have built on the initial crack provided by Woodward and Armstrong’s pioneering and demystifying work.


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