As the Supreme Court begins a new term with a new member, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, some recent books add to our understanding of this vital yet veiled branch of the United States government.

A HISTORY OF THE SUPREME COURT, by Bernard Schwartz (Oxford University Press, 465 pp., $30). ``There is no good one-volume history of the United States Supreme Court,'' writes Bernard Schwartz, a law professor at the University of Tulsa, who sets out to correct the deficiency. He has achieved his goal with a competent and readable book. The volume is organized chronologically, beginning with the first session of the Supreme Court in New York under Chief Justice John Jay in 1790 - when the great issue was whether the jurists should wear English-style wigs - through the term that ended in June 1992.

In addition to chapters covering the tenure of each chief justice, the book is highlighted by chapters describing four watershed cases: Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which helped start the Civil War; Lochner v. New York (1905), which struck down an early attempt at social legislation, with a famous dissent by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.; Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the school-desegregation case; and Roe v. Wade (1973), the abortion case.

The author's thesis is that ``in the main the Supreme Court in operation has reflected the history of the nation: the main thrust has been to meet the `felt necessities' [quoting Holmes] of each period in the nation's history.'' Thus Schwartz examines the work of the court in terms of its contributions to economic expansion, industrialization, and, in recent decades, the protection of individual rights against concentrations of power.

While experts might dispute some of the author's interpretations, the general reader will get a useful overview of the high court, its leading members over two centuries, and the issues they have grappled with.

THE SUPREME COURT: A CITIZEN'S GUIDE, by Robert J. Wagman (Pharos Books, 342 pp., $22.95), is a handy reference tool for nonexperts who want to quickly familiarize themselves with the history and workings of the high court. In addition to a brief but serviceable history of the court through the 1991-92 term, the book features sketches, in chronological order, of the Supreme Court's 100 ``most important'' and 10 ``worst'' decisions; thumbnail biographies of all the justices (except Mrs. Ginsburg); a description of the court itself and its administrative personnel; and a glossary of legal terms.

In a fascinating case study of ``How the Supreme Court Works,'' Robert Wagman - a Washington journalist - traces the progress of a recent free-speech case from the initial incident (the burning of a cross on a black family's lawn in St. Paul, Minn.) through the proceedings in the Minnesota courts and the US Supreme Court's 1992 decision that struck down the ordinance under which the offending youth was prosecuted.

The concise case summaries provide little more than bottom-line statements of the cases' results and significance. For more complete and nuanced discussions of the legal and historical issues, the reader needs to go to sources like the marvelous ``The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States'' (1992).

THE SUPREME COURT JUSTICES: ILLUSTRATED BIOGRAPHIES, 1789-1993, edited by Clare Cushman (Congressional Quarterly, 576 pp., $44.95), is a handsome and informative project of the Supreme Court Historical Society. Pop quiz: Who were Bushrod Washington, William Johnson, John McLean, and James M. Wayne? They were men who, like such legends as John Marshall, Hugo Black, and William O. Douglas, served for more than 30 years on the Supreme Court (without leaving much of a trace).

This volume tells the stories, with portraits and period illustrations, of each of the 105 men and one woman (again, Ginsburg is not included) who served on the court before the current term. Though today we regard many of these jurists as mere seat-warmers who shared the high bench with a few legal titans, most were prominent in their time, often with distinguished public careers, and they all - if only in their silent votes - helped shape American constitutional history.

This book, which includes a bibliography for each justice, belongs on the shelf of every Supreme Court buff.

A JUSTICE FOR ALL: WILLIAM J. BRENNAN, JR., AND THE DECISIONS THAT TRANSFORMED AMERICA, by Kim Isaac Eisler (Simon & Schuster, 303 pp., $22), is a largely glowing biography of the justice who, the writer says, was ``the most influential justice of the twentieth century.'' (Some scholars may quibble with that title in a century that also produced Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis, Hugo Black, and Earl Warren.) Kim Isaac Eisler acknowledges that Brennan ``was neither the greatest thinker on the Court nor its best writer,'' and he quotes Brennan's self-assessment as ``the mule in the Kentucky Derby.'' But these shortcomings are noted only to throw into bolder relief Brennan's towering achievements.

In his 34-year career on the high bench, from 1956 to 1990, Brennan wrote or brokered a remarkable number of the seminal decisions made by the Warren and Burger courts, until changes in personnel under Republican presidents eventually pushed him into the minority. His great asset wasn't intellect, but his ability to build coalitions. ``With five votes around here, you can do anything,'' Brennan told his clerks, and in pursuit of those votes, Eisler writes, ``Brennan was a politician, an operator who ... worked the justices the way Lyndon Johnson worked the floor of the Senate.''

It's well known that President Eisenhower regarded the appointment of Brennan - who became the leader of the court's liberal bloc - as one of his great mistakes, but one is dismayed to learn how little attention Ike paid to the choice, which advisers made solely to win the Catholic vote in the 1956 election.

This well-written but slim account is hardly the last word on Brennan and his judicial activism, but it's a good introduction to a Supreme Court giant.

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