#REVIEW: The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America, by Thom Hartmann

Back in June I was lucky enough to receive an early review copy of Thom Hartmann’s The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment. I mentioned in the review that the book was part of a series– a series that I have since discovered is planned to run ten books— and that the second volume was to be out in October.

That was true! The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America was released on October 1 and should now be available anywhere you might happen to buy books. I was able to snag a copy of the second book in the series through the same folks that sent me the first one, and I sat down and read it tonight after getting home from work.

The book, and as I’m writing this I’m feeling like nonfiction needs a word similar to novella, is 156 pages long plus a dozen or so pages of footnotes and an index, and is divided into three sections. The first section is devoted to the founding fathers’ view of the Court and how the principle of judicial review became one of the Court’s powers. The second discusses the Court’s frequent rulings against the people in favor of the rich and powerful and corporate interests, and the third section– by far the shortest– is about how we might break the current right-wing stranglehold on the Court and, uh, save the world in the process.

I enjoyed Guns and the Second Amendment quite a bit. I was less a fan of this one, to be honest. To begin, it shares many of the weaknesses of the first book, weaknesses that are intrinsic to deliberately writing a book this short– I don’t have a wordcount handy, but I would suspect this book to be no longer than 30 to 40,000 words if it’s even that long, and it took me no longer than an hour or two to read. The sources, again like the first book, are almost entirely to websites, meaning that that entire part of the book will be useless in a few years, and this book feels a bit unfocused in a way that Guns and the Second Amendment didn’t. There’s simply a lot more to discuss when you’re talking about the Supreme Court– and as a result this book feels much more cursory and, to be honest, slapdash than the first volume did. This is, in large part, due to the deliberate decision by the author to write a short book, of course; I leave it up to you to decide if that aspect of it is going to be a problem for you or not.

A second problem is that I simply don’t have much sympathy for Hartmann’s core argument. I don’t believe that the first section ever actually directly states that Marbury v. Madison was decided wrongly, but it’s hard to escape that conclusion after reading it; describing the court as “despotic” in more than one place is pretty clear. And the thing is, I just … don’t care if it was the right decision, to be honest. The Constitution was fourteen years old when Marbury v. Madison was decided. We are, I think, well beyond the point where “The Court shouldn’t be able to overturn acts of Congress!” is a reasonable argument. If we’re talking about rewriting the entire Constitution, then okay, let’s discuss judicial review. But as an argument in what is supposed to be a history book? Meh. I just think it’s a silly discussion to be having.

The book is on stronger footing for the second part, although I’m not sure how hidden any of the history really is. The Court really has mostly privileged the wealthy and powerful over much of its tenure, although it’s not unlike basically all of human history in that regard, and there are certainly places where Court decisions have contributed materially to, well, justice. There is a brief review of judicial appointments to the Court since the Nixon years that was quite interesting– I wasn’t aware just how many of the Republican presidents (nearly all of them since Nixon, basically) initially took office under a cloud of some sort, which makes the hard-right turn that the conservative justices have taken over the last 40-50 years all that much more pernicious. And in more recent history, of course, we have Mitch McConnell stealing Obama’s last Supreme Court appointment, and the current occupant of the White House’s selection of perjuring rapist Brett Kavanaugh for the job.

The book wraps up with the rather grandiose claim that it is the composition of the current US Supreme Court that is causing the global climate crisis, or at least preventing us from fixing it, and goes into a few ways– court-packing and jurisdiction-stripping, basically– that we might choose to combat that. I, uh, kinda feel like Step One on this is to get Congress and the White House back, and if I were to line up a whole bunch of people in order of how responsible they were for the fucking mess human civilization is currently in I suppose the US Supreme Court would be on the list but they wouldn’t be as high as Hartmann seems to want them to be. It’s a bit of a stretch, is what I’m saying, and again the length of the book works against the author’s goals here, because you’re gonna need a few more pages to get me to blame the Supreme Court for climate change, particularly when you also make the point that the Supreme Court allowed the EPA to exist in the first place. We’d be worse off without them, in other words.

So … yeah. I wasn’t a huge fan of this book, although there were definitely some interesting parts to it; the series continues to be intriguing, however, and I’ll happily read the third volume– dedicated to the war on voting, which feels like a better fit to this series than the Court does– when it comes out even if my Mysterious Benefactors choose not to bestow a copy on me.

The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America is available now.

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