Jeffrey Toobin, an author, staff writer at The New Yorker and senior legal analyst for CNN, recently published his second book about the U.S. Supreme Court, “The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court.” The book is a detailed narrative exploring the constitutional struggle between President Obama and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. It also explores the personality of the justices, especially Chief Justice John Roberts, a figure whom Toobin says is “very likely to be a major figure in American history.”
This is an edited transcript of an interview with Toobin:
Where did this idea come from, essentially a narrative delving into the intellectual battle between two men – Obama and Roberts? You begin the book by describing how the oath was botched on Jan. 20, 2008, when Obama was sworn in by Roberts and its aftermath. Why start the book that way?
I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of two men with such similar backgrounds in certain respects – educationally, for example [both were leaders at Harvard Law School]. I think of them both as princes of the meritocracy. They are leading figures of their generation. … I just became kind of obsessed with the botched oath. … Nobody went back and asked what the heck happened. How did it get messed up in this way? The oath, the administration of the oath is just a fascinating story on its own. But it was also a useful metaphor for the conflict between the two world views.
They have surprising differences in their worldviews. Roberts is person — when it comes to the Constitution – who advocates change. And Obama is the advocate for the status quo. That for me was surprising given their overall approaches to politics.
What surprised you most in your reporting? You spend a great deal of time talking about the court’s landmark Citizens United opinion in 2010 that held that the First Amendment blocked the government from restricting certain political spending by corporations and unions.
I think what surprised me most was the richness of the Citizens United story. Citizens United is so rich as a story of the court as an institution and its impact in the real world. One reason I focus on it so much is not just its importance but because so many different narratives meet in Citizens United . Obviously, it’s important for what it means to politics. But it’s the first case that Elena Kagan [a future justice] argues in any court. It’s the first case heard by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. All of these strands came together. Another strand is the aggressiveness of the court’s conservative majority. It comes out very strongly in the Citizens United opinion. ... It’s also Justice John Paul Stevens’s farewell to the court. And it’s a story about Roberts’s leadership of the court. I don’t know if it surprised me or impressed me. But I was impressed by what a formidable figure John Roberts is. As an intellectual, as a writer, as a leader. John Roberts is very likely to be a major figure in American history. To chronicle his emergence as one of the most formidable chief justices of all time was a real goal of mine in the book.
Was it hard to get inside the chambers? And how did you deal with the justices as characters?
I interviewed a majority of the justices but make a point of not saying whom I interviewed. I confess to a tremendous fondness, interest and amusement in [former justice] David Souter. He is a great American character that is mostly unknown to the American public. ... These people, they are not friends or enemies. They are characters. They are people I want my readers to understand and be interested in. To me, anyway, the first commandment of writing is not to bore. You have to bring people alive. And that is my goal, much more than saying this decision was correct and this decision wasn’t. I obviously have views of some but not all of the cases.
Roberts vs. Obama in a cage-fighting match. Who wins?
Obama has a few inches on him. That’s an advantage. He’s six years younger. And Obama plays basketball as well as golf, and Roberts just plays golf. You add it all up, and Obama gets the nod in the cage.
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