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Classic review: The Nine

Jeffrey Toobin examines the nine personalities that sit on the nation's highest court.

(Page 2 of 3)

True story, says Rudman.

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Toobin offers up some intrigue as well. He tells the story of how the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist administered the oath of office to Bill Clinton in January 1997. A week earlier the Supreme Court had heard oral argument in the Paula Jones case – Clinton v. Jones. (That's the sexual harassment lawsuit that would trigger the tawdry disclosures and events that led to impeachment proceedings.)

The justices by then had already conducted their post-argument conference and the chief justice must have known at Clinton's inauguration that the high court was preparing to rule 9-0 against the president.

Toobin writes: "Clinton told friends that the chief justice shook his hand and said, 'Good luck – you'll need it.' The president took the gesture as vaguely menacing."

Toobin goes on to criticize Justice John Paul Stevens's opinion in the Jones case upholding the "commendable principle" that no man is above the law. But Toobin says Stevens's opinion "showed a stunning naiveté about contemporary law and politics."

Stevens and his colleagues rejected Clinton's argument that the Jones suit should be put on hold because it would distract the president from his official duties. "It appears to us highly unlikely to occupy any substantial amount of [Clinton's] time," Stevens wrote. Toobin labels this "an epically incorrect prediction."

But what Toobin downplays is that much of the menace that emerged during Clinton's scandal-tainted second term was of the president's own making. No one on the high court, least of all Justice Stevens, could have imagined that Bill Clinton was about to give false testimony in the Jones suit to cover-up an ongoing sexual relationship with a White House intern, and that he would lie about it to a grand jury.

Supreme Court justices are sometimes considered infallible because they get the last word on what the law is, but there is nothing in that calculus that qualifies them as oracles of the sexual and legal escapades of our then commander in chief.

Toobin sprinkles bits of biographical information on the justices throughout "The Nine." Some appear directly relevant to their work on the Court (such as Justice Anthony Kennedy's passion for travel, which in Toobin's view, has ended up "transforming his tenure as a justice"), while others do not (Justice Samuel Alito's love of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, which led his fellow justices to invite the Phillie Phanatic, the team's mascot, to his welcoming dinner.)

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