Maybe it was inevitable that someone with expertise in law & typography would be drawn into the gravitational pull of our American political moment. (Maybe it’s inevitable that we all will, in a variant of the famous dictum attributed to Warhol.)
A Washington Post reporter recently sought comment from me on the apparently droll use of Comic Sans by former Trump attorney John Dowd. I declined comment because 1) Comic Sans hasn’t been funny since 1997, and 2) though I did enjoy Mr. Dowd’s appearance in Bob Woodward’s book Fear, I’m not convinced history will consider him a figure of comedy, exactly.
Speaking of Woodward, this is an opportune moment to recommend my all-time favorite book about the courts: The Brethren, by Woodward and Scott Armstrong. The book covers the highly consequential U.S. Supreme Court terms from 1969–75, including decisions about freedom of speech, abortion, and Richard Nixon.
Writing or reporting about the Supreme Court is difficult because of the longstanding vow of secrecy among justices and their clerks. Woodward and Armstrong, however, got sources within the court to talk. Even Justice Potter Stewart, also known for coining the famous phrase “I know it when I see it”.
Narratives of the Nixon endgame often cite the “brave Republicans” who were “principled and patriotic” enough to stand up to a president from their own party. But according to The Brethren, bravery had little to do with it. In April 1974, Nixon had refused to comply with a subpoena for certain White House tapes, instead offering edited transcripts. (The phrase “expletive deleted” was apparently popularized by these transcripts, which used it repeatedly.) In May, Judge John Sirica ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes. Nixon refused and appealed directly to the Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision on July 24, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to comply with Sirica’s order. It was only after this decision that Republican members of congress began to discover their “courage”. On August 8, Nixon resigned. But had the Supreme Court gone the other way, the political outcome might well have been different.
The Brethren makes the case that although politicians get most of the headlines and attention, it’s the federal courts that hold the most concentrated power in American government. And what might appear to be peripheral disputes about procedure can snowball into bigger consequences. For that reason, as we sift through the mountains of daily coverage, my appellate-lawyer wife and I pay the most attention to what the judges are doing.
One major shortcoming of Woodward’s book: like most journalists of the era, he declined to mention that former Chief Justice William Rehnquist became addicted to the sedative Placidyl due to heavy use between 1971 and 1981. FBI files released in 2007 indicated that during Rehnquist’s stay in a detox program in 1981, he exhibited paranoid and delusional behavior. Rehnquist served on the court until his death in 2005.