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Review: ‘The Oath’ by Jeffrey Toobin

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Updated: October 24, 2012 6:04AM

Few pay much attention to the U.S. Supreme Court, except for every decade or so when it decides to write a few words and turn everything around us upside-down or inside-out.

This is called a landmark ruling.

The Supreme Court briefly attracted our attention this year, at about the level of our watching Lindsay Lohan check into another rehab, when it almost offered a landmark ruling that almost overturned Obamacare, but didn’t.

And then we went back to a presidential election that is more interested in dogs on car roofs than the Commerce Clause.

Jeffrey Toobin thinks we should rethink this, and he keeps writing books to this effect. In his latest, “The Oath: The Obama White House and The Supreme Court” (Doubleday, $28.95), Toobin, a rare authority who knows how to write, frames President Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts as engaged in a kind of slow-motion showdown, like two men standing on a frontier main street, which ought to get our attention.

“The Oath” purports — and the purporting succeeds with good reporting — to tell the story of Obama vs. Roberts, which, Toobin reminds us, is as important as Obama vs. Romney in many ways.

The narrative starts with Roberts’ botched administering of Obama’s presidential oath (and an interesting sojourn in the subject of how slovenly presidential oaths have been over the years) and proceeds, with flashbacks, to the Obamacare ruling, in which Roberts surprised everyone and cast the deciding vote to let the law stand.

Toobin tells this story, making hundreds of points, two chief among them:

◆ Roberts knows that his typical 5-4 conservative majority may not last long and is doing what he can to lurch the Constitution to the right as quickly as possible.

◆ Obama is doing what he can to stop this, one fellow Harvard Law Review alum against the other.

And here is the surprise:

This makes Roberts an almost radical “apostle of change” — an activist judge! — who wants “to usher in a new understanding of the Constitution with dramatic results for both the law and larger society.”

Obama? He’s the conservative. He is “determined to hold on to an older version of the meaning of the Constitution.” He is the fellow “standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’ ”

Toobin takes us through the story in two ways.

There is Toobin, the lawyer and legal analyst, explaining the decisions and the law — from the raw politics of Bush vs. Gore to the corporate personhood of Citizens United to the Obamacare thing — in sufficient detail to help the layman understand but not so dense as to make him run for the hills.

There is Toobin, the beat reporter, who manages some nice peeks at the nine men and women behind the curtain. The fun part of the book is this series of peeks, including the vigorous dissent of some justices to Roberts’ decision to rotate the justices’ conference table 90 degrees during a redecoration because, among other things, this made it hard to find a good place to put the coffee and pastries.

There is the often intimate chronicling of Supreme Court terms, which typically start with camaraderie and end with the justices not being able to stand the sight of one another.

And did you know that former Justice David Souter, when he eats an apple, eats it core and all? Now you do.

This is, in short, a book suitable for reading in the study or while sprawled at the beach.

The tone of the book is gentle enough and nicely wry at times — a difficult task when dealing with issues that seem these days to have most us beating one another over the head with buzzard guts.

Then again: “Scalia’s dissenting opinion marked his transition from conservative intellectual to right-wing crank.”

Hey. He’s a reporter telling the news.

And, well, there are faults to be found. One doubts that former Justice David Souter’s “family farm house was literally disintegrating under the weight of all his books.”

But the faults are literally small and few. And there is no reason to dwell on them. We don’t want to hurt the book’s feelings.

Books are people, too.

Zay N. Smith writes the QT column for Chicago Public Media at

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