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A People's History of the Supreme Court

By Peter Irons

The story of the Court is told from the point of view of people like Hyman Rosansky, Lillian Gobitas, and Michael Hardwick.

542 pages
Penguin (1999)

Reviewed by: Eric Howard

A People's History of the Supreme Court does not omit the people on the court and the people who got them there. Neither does the book ignore the people whose cases reached the court. Irons's history represents a triumph of telling the story as the means of framing an argument.

One small example is the story of Willie Lyons, an elevator operator whose suit brought two legal abstractions into reconsideration. Lyons, who worked in a hotel "for $35 per month and two meals a day," sued the government to keep her wages from being raised to a statutory minimum. Her lawyers denied the defendant's claim that she had been "induced to bring this action." In 1923 in Adkins v. Children's Hospital, the court ruled on her suit. At issue was how freedom of contract (which in Lochner v. New York meant no regulation of the wages and hours of workers) should be reconciled with the '"chivalrous' exception for women workers in the Muller case," which held that the woman worker's "maternal functions...justify legislation to protect her from the greed as well as the passion of man." Lyons's victory can be attributed to people—specifically four conservative justices whose appointments were as politicized as those before and since. George Sutherland, Pierce Butler, Willis Van Devanter, and James McReynolds were so "committed to laissez-faire doctrine" that they "were later dubbed the 'Four Horsemen of Reaction'" when they "led the charge"against New Deal laws.

Fortunately for readers, this book's focus on narrative preserves the drama, controversy, and emotion of the court and its decisions. Its overriding concern, as its title implies, is to remind readers that because it is people who constitute and influence the Supreme Court, the people should not consider it beyond their reach.

Eric Howard is associate editor of Los Angeles Lawyer.