What Can We Steal From Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine?

Title of Work and its Form: The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, nonfiction
Author: Jeffrey Toobin
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found: Purchase the book at Powell’s or in your local neighborhood bookstore.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

I’m not quite sure why, but I love reading about the Supreme Court.  No matter what you may think of a specific Justice, it’s a fascinating institution that has been the home almost exclusively of brilliant people who both know and love the Constitution on a deep level.  The American experiment, in many ways, can be distilled into a list of Supreme Court decisions.

Toobin’s excellent book is a snapshot of the Supreme Court near the end of Chief Justice Rehnquist’s term.  (The narrative extends slightly past the Chief’s death.)  Toobin’s book achieves three very difficult goals:

  1. Present an honest biography of the nine Justices in addition to telling the stories of the important supporting players.
  2. Describe the sometimes complicated legal discussions that surrounded cases such as Bush v. Gore  and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
  3. Appeal to readers who are not necessarily legal scholars.  (That means me.)

Toobin chooses a felicitous structure for the book.  Instead of frontloading the book with dozens (if not hundreds) of pages describing the life story of each Justice, he weaves the biographical information into the larger story of the Court’s work.  The reader learns that Justice Thomas enjoyed taking his RV around the country and is reminded of the Anita Hill debate, but the exposition doesn’t get in the way.

The narrative shifts through time as necessary, but the Rehnquist Court is still the spine of the book.  In order to adequately describe Rehnquist’s ideological evolution, Toobin must first go back in time to tell the story of memos Rehnquist wrote that could be considered…well, kinda sorta racist maybe.

Toobin is somewhat lucky because his book is set in a very important time in American history.  The Court has always been a battleground, to be sure.  But the Court has been much more visible in the past few decades and has been much more politicized than in the past.  (Boy, did it take me a long time to figure out the right qualifiers for that sentence.  You get the point.)  Confirmation hearings weren’t really a matter of interest until Robert Bork was “borked” and Justice Thomas had that little problem with Anita Hill.  The Presidential election of 2000 was the first decided by the Supreme Court and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 resulted in a series of very important cases.

Even though Supreme Court Justices are often thought to be made of the same stone that makes up the Supreme Court building itself, Toobin treats the history like a story and the Justices like people.  It is one thing to think of Justice Harry Blackmun as a white-haired man who wrote a bunch of important decisions.  Instead, Toobin goes further, describing the agony the man went through as he tried to produce a version of the opinion for Roe v. Wade that would reflect the Court’s vote without cleaving the country in two.  The process by which a President chooses a nominee could be described in a boring manner; Toobin tells it like a real story.

Toobin did his homework, interviewing roughly eleventy trillion people.  Because he did his homework, he is able to fill the book with great anecdotes.  For example, Justice O’Connor (a proud old-school Republican who began her career in Arizona) loves hearing that her former clerks are pregnant (or that their wives/girlfriends are having a baby).  As Toobin writes on page 218:

O’Connor gave T-shirts with the words “Grand Clerks” to the newborn children of all her law clerks; shortly after 2000, she learned that one of her former clerks, a gay man, was adopting a baby with his partner.  In her briskly efficient way, O’Connor poked her head into her current clerks’ office, explained the situation, and said, “I should send one of the shirts, right?  We think this is a good idea, don’t we?  The clerks nodded and the shirt went in the mail.

If you’ll notice, Toobin efficiently points out a facet of O’Connor’s character with the dialogue.  Instead of O’Connor saying “I think,” she says, “we.”  The quote points out an openness to deliberation.

What Should We Steal?

  • Break up big and complicated stories into smaller bites, unified by a central theme.  I love Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but that book is DENSE.  The Nine, by definition, must feature nine miniature biographies, but Toobin weaves between stories about Court cases and stories about the people in order to create suspense.  Indeed, we all remember that Justice Rehnquist passed away, but the book still makes it a surprise.
  • Treat your characters like real people.  Real people have flaws.  A character is likely to feel more real if you allow them to confess unpleasant thoughts.  Justice Scalia is a fascinating guy; Toobin includes quotes from the man that make him seem both brilliant and petty.
  • Choose a meaningful story to tell; one with lots of drama.  It would be a little difficult to captivate readers with a description of life at Pearl Harbor in November, 1941.  Wouldn’t you agree that the drama is much easier to find if you write about December, 1941?

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