Harvard Law School Professor Noah R. Feldman ’92 discussed his new book, which explores the battling personalities of four Supreme Court Justices appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt ’04, at the Law School Wednesday night.
Feldman’s book, titled “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices,” focuses on how the personal lives of the Justices intersected with their roles in shaping legal history.
“They don’t make them like this anymore,” said journalist Christopher Lydon, who hosted the conversation, as he introduced the larger-than-life personalities of the justices.
Feldman said that it was hard to imagine the “Scorpions” being confirmed for the Supreme Court today, given the modern political environment.
“So many people now are disqualified from the Supreme Court the minute they do something controversial or take a strong stance,” he said.
One of the Justices Feldman writes about, Robert Jackson, never graduated from law school, and another, Hugo Black, was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
But as Justices, both took strong stances for human rights: Jackson was the chief United States prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, and Black was instrumental in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which concluded that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
In addition to speaking about legal history, Feldman also commented on the workings of the current Supreme Court, critiquing what he called a system in which the Supreme Court is largely disengaged from public discourse.
“This idealization of the Court is not good for democracy. In a democracy, institutions should be held responsible by the people,” Feldman said.
The “Scorpions” were not perfect people, Feldman added, but they nevertheless left great legal legacies.
“We also need flawed people for results,” he said.
According to Feldman, legal scholars have criticized his book for focusing on personalities rather than scholarship, but as long as “personality shapes the context of legal ideas, it’s not trivial,” Feldman said.
Christina R. Krushen, a second-year graduate student who audited a class with Feldman and attended the event, said she agreed with Feldman’s stance.
“We talked about these justices in the context of their legal opinions, and it was interesting to hear about them in their personal lives,” she said.
“It opens up these ideas to a nonlegal audience,” she added.