Geof Stone Reviews Justice Stevens' Memoir

Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir
Geoffrey R. Stone
The Washington Independent Review of Books
October 3, 2011

“Five Chiefs” refers to the five Chief Justices Justice John Paul Stevens encountered during the course of his more than 60-year career as a law clerk, lawyer, federal court of appeals judge, and Justice on the Supreme Court. Justice Stevens offers lively and engaging insights about each of the five Chiefs with whom he worked: Fred Vinson, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts. In the process, he discusses their times, judicial approaches and opinions, respective roles on the Court, personal and professional challenges, and their relations (good, bad, or indifferent) with their colleagues and the Court as an institution.

Five Chiefs is not a systematic or thematic history of the Supreme Court since the late 1940s, but a series of anecdotes, observations and musings that entertain, enlighten, and inform in an accessible and engaging manner.

Five Chiefs is very definitely a personal memoir, and throughout Justice Stevens adopts the rather startling device of referring to his fellow Justices by their first names –– Bill, Nino, John, Lewis, Ruth, Clarence, etc. –– rather than by their more formal titles. It took me a few pages to get used to this, but once I did it added to the sense of intimacy and, more importantly, to an understanding of how the Justices actually perceive and relate to one another –– as real people rather than as mysterious and largely impersonal lawgivers masked within black robes. (More on “black robes” in a moment.)

Geoffrey R. Stone