Vol. 3 No. 4 (April, 1993) pp. 43-45

THE SUPREME COURT AND AMERICAN DEMOCRACY by David G. Barnum. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993. 348 pp. Paperback.

THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES: AN INTRODUCTION by Thomas G. Walker and Lee Epstein. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993. 207 pp. Paperback.

Reviewed by Richard A. Brisbin, Jr., Department of Political Science, West Virginia University.

Instructors who teach introductory judicial politics classes or introductory American politics classes will find much of value in these two paperback textbooks designed to introduce students to the U. S. Supreme Court. Although these books from St. Martin's Press cover many of the same topics, there are several substantial differences between them. Also, they differ in several respects from competing books released by other publishers.

Both David Barnum and Thomas Walker and Lee Epstein detail the history and organization of the federal appellate courts, the nature of judicial review, and the history of the Court. Walker and Epstein are very terse in the discussion of these topics, and they present data on judicial review through the use of their favorite illustrative device, the line graph. Barnum offers an additional discussion of the democratic character of judicial review that is in keeping with his greater attention to the normative dimensions of the judicial process, and his description of court organization and jurisdiction, offered in a separate chapter, and Supreme Court history, offered later in his book, are much more elaborate.

Walker and Epstein then discuss the selection of the justices, the justices' background characteristics, and court support personnel. Barnum postpones the discussion of judicial selection until covering other material and treats selection as a restraint on Court decision making rather than as a variable affecting all aspects of the work of the Court. In comparison to Walker and Epstein, his approach offers somewhat less data on the justices but adds historical information on the appointment process. Only Walker and Epstein discuss departures from the bench.

Case selection receives extended treatment from Walker and Epstein. They discuss trends in the Court's docket, with graphic illustrations, and the certiorari decision making process with special attention to the influence of the Solicitor General, interest groups, and ideology upon this process. Barnum covers the same topics, but his discussion of certiorari voting is more formal, uses data less effectively to make its point, and is less attentive to politics and the special role of the Solicitor General. Barnum adds a boxed comment on the Solicitor General later in the book, but he does not directly comment on the special role of the Solicitor General in certiorari decision making.

Both books review the process of Supreme Court action through the announcement of opinions. In comparison to Barnum, Walker and Epstein offer a neater summary of the structure of a term of the Court, more information about opinion assignment, and graphic information about dissenting and concurring opinions.

The discussion of decision making in orally argued cases in both books proceeds from the individual level. Both books discuss the attitudinal or ideological model of judicial voting, but each qualify the strength of the model by discussing other individual level political variables and legal variables. To his credit, Barnum also notes the political environment within which the justices' decision making occurs. However, his discussion often moves incoherently from a discussion of external restraints as an independent variable affecting decisions to a treatment of Court decisions as an independent variable affecting on Congress, president and the public. Only Walker and Epstein spend time examining collegial pressures on decision making. Their depiction of external variables affecting decisions concentrates on interest groups and not on the Congress or president.

Page 44 follows:

The discussion of the outcome of Court action by Walker and Epstein presents empirical information on the topic and ideological direction of court decisions, then it moves on to discuss the impact of decisions. The impact discussion follows the population model of Charles Johnson and Bradley Canon (1984). A final chapter cogently discusses whether the Court is a regime supporter or a more independent policy maker. Barnum presents data about the ideological direction of Court decisions with his discussion of decision making. He does not sort out the effect of the Court's decisions on external political actors very effectively by employing a model like that offered by Johnson and Canon. In his final chapters he presents the normative arguments for and against judicial review. His final chapter assesses whether the Court is a counter-majoritarian institution by examining public opinion data about several major issues. In contrast, Walker and Epstein offer only a passing reference to the normative dimensions of appellate justice. Both books have glossaries of terms, appended data on the justices, and either chapter end or appended bibliographies for further reading.

A significant difference between these books is Barnum's inclusion of seven case studies of constitutional decision making. Although very brief and exclusively about rights and liberties issues, the case studies afford the student a portrait of the politics of the origins and impact of Supreme Court decisions. Unfortunately, the studies are much stronger as examples of how a case arrives at the Court and the construction of opinions in the case than as examples of the policy impact of the Court. They offer too little discussion of how a major rights case is only the beginning of a political struggle, a struggle in which the role of the Court is often minimal.

The primary competitors of these books are texts by Lawrence Baum (1992) and Stephen Wasby (1988). Baum covers the same topics in the same order as Walker and Epstein. His chapter on certiorari decisions is better organized than either Barnum or Walker and Epstein, and he makes more use of the new findings of H. W. Perry about certiorari decisions. Baum's discussion of decision making, featuring an ample presentation of data, is much more reliant on the attitudinal or ideological model. His chapters on compliance and impact use a unique policy implementation approach. He spends less time on the Court and public opinion or legitimacy than does Barnum, and he is less direct in considering the role of the Court in the political system than Walker and Epstein. Interestingly, on several occasions Barnum cites information found in Baum's book.

Because he provides much more historical information and many more examples of Court procedures and processes, Wasby's book is much longer than the books of Barnum, Walker and Epstein, and Baum. Also, Wasby provides more descriptive information and fewer presentations of data about interest group litigation, federal court administration, and the overall appellate process. However, all of the additional detail makes his account less concise and probably more distracting for the introductory student in an era when many students regard reading as a chore.

Although each instructor must choose her text with consideration of her pedagogical aims, as a discussion of judicial behavior in the Supreme Court, this reviewer finds the Walker and Epstein book to be a more logically organized and stronger summary of existing knowledge. Barnum's is a book for instructors who want to concentrate on the normative implications of the Court for American democracy. However, instructors should be forewarned that neither book discusses at length the vital role of the Court in statutory construction and the oversight of the administrative process. Barnum especially implies that the business of the Court is judicial review. Also, neither book points to the uniqueness and selective impact of the Supreme Court in American politics by comparing it to the different but important policy roles of the other levels of the judiciary which order family, debt, accidental injury, criminal, and other socioeconomic problems. Despite these caveats, both books have a useful role to play for education in American

Page 45 follows:

judicial politics.


Baum, Lawrence. 1992. THE SUPREME COURT, fourth ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.

Johnson, Charles A. and Bradley C. Canon. 1984. JUDICIAL POLICIES. Washington, D. C.: CQ Press.

Wasby, Stephen. 1988. THE SUPREME COURT IN THE FEDERAL JUDICIAL SYSTEM, third ed. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Copyright 1993