Vol. 2 No. 6 (June, 1992) pp. 93-94
THE SUPREME COURT YEARBOOK: 1990-1991 by Joan Biskupic. Washington: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1992. 232 pp. Cloth $29.95. Paper $ 12.95.
Reviewed by Donald W. Crowley, Department of Political Science, University of Idaho
Joan Biskupic's SUPREME COURT YEARBOOK: 1990-1991 is the second in what is planned to be a yearly account of the most recently completed Supreme Court term. The book provides an overview of the major developments on the Court, short summaries of all the Court's written decisions during the year, and longer excerpts of ten of the most important cases. The book also includes a brief preview of cases likely to be decided in the next term and concludes with a short description of Court procedures. An Appendix contains biographies of the current Justices and a glossary of legal terms.
The book seeks to provide an account of the Court's term in a manner that is accessible to students and non-specialists. In this I think Ms. Biskupic is largely successful. However, whether such a yearbook can be fully understood and appreciated without at least a reasonable background in past Supreme Court decision making is open to debate. As with any treatment of the yearly developments of an institution, there is the problem of historical context, although in a class this could be easily remedied by assignment of one of many texts that provides the type of historic overview necessary to give meaning to current developments.
Since the YEARBOOK is intended to be a review of the previous terms major developments the book doesn't really have a central thesis. In the first two chapters Biskupic does raise issues regarding recent appointments and the effect Justices Souter and Thomas are likely to have in solidifying the conservative majority on the Court. However, such themes are not really the point of the work and thus are not developed in any systematic way.
In the first chapter Ms. Biskupic's provides a brief overview of the political turmoil surrounding the Thomas nomination. Touching on the highpoints (or lowpoints) of the confirmation proceedings and the Anita Hill testimony, Biskupic's account is well done even though those who followed the dramatic hearings culminating in Thomas' confirmation will find nothing new or surprising.
The second chapter provides a very brief discussion of the growing conservatism of the Court and then slides into summaries of what Biskupic considers to be the most important cases decided by the Court during the 1990-1991 term. The summaries of major decisions are quite competently done, however anyone looking for analysis of the doctrinal trends or deeper significance of the decisions is likely to be disappointed.
The next two chapters constitute the bulk of the book. The third chapter provides brief summaries of the 112 signed opinions written by the Court last term. The decisions are grouped by general topic (Business Law, Criminal Law, Individual Rights, etc.) and each summary contains the Court vote and the majority holding. By summarizing all decisions Biskupic clearly provides a service since other Supreme Court updates have only covered a few selected cases. The fourth chapter contains somewhat longer excerpts from the ten major cases first discussed in chapter two. No doubt this can be a useful shelf resource to those who don't have ready access to U.S REPORTS or U.S LAW WEEK.
As a prelude to reviewing what's on the Court docket for this year, the fifth chapter contains a nice discussion of the current debate over Justice Scalia's attempt to get the Court to ignore legislative history and focus only on the actual language in determining the meaning of a statute. Biskupic notes but does not elaborate on the ideological effect of reading Congressional intent narrowly while allowing executive branch agencies in cases like RUST v. SULLIVAN broad scope to apply its understanding of Congressional intent.
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Such positioning by Scalia and his colleagues raises the question of whether they are really that sympathetic to executive branch prerogatives or are simply in tune with the ideological direction of executive branch decisions. Biskupic is certainly right to point to these developments in statutory interpretation as one of the more important trends to watch for as the Rehnquist Court begins to take on its own identity.
While Joan Biskupic's SUPREME COURT YEARBOOK doesn't pretend to supply a very detailed analysis of recent cases or larger decision making trends, it should nevertheless serve as a very handy reference for those who teach undergraduate courses focusing on the Supreme Court. I certainly plan to purchase future editions to use as a quick reference source. The book could also be used as a supplementary text for some courses, although I suspect the scarcity of analysis and historical context could be a major stumbling block to those with insufficient background.