Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
The Supreme Court The Supreme Court - Image of hands holding a gavel.
Check local listings
Home Timeline Games Supreme Court History
SUPREME COURT HISTORY
Law, Power & Personality
Court History
E-Mail this Page Print Format Glossary

The most effective chief justices have had a pragmatic concern for the good of the Court, while the least effective ones have often been the most ideologically rigid. One unsuccessful chief, Harlan Fiske Stone, who served from 1925 to 1941 as an associate justice and from 1941 to 1946 as the chief, was a former Columbia law professor who infuriated his colleagues by sitting behind his desk at the justices' private conferences and calling on them as if they were his students. Under Stone, the conferences meandered and the justices feuded openly, sometimes taking their personal rivalries into the newspapers. By contrast, many of the most successful chiefs have been former politicians, such as Chief Justice Earl Warren, who served as Governor of California and was the Republican candidate for vice president in 1948. When Warren joined it in 1953, a fractured Court was in the midst of deciding the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, with at most only four confident votes to strike down school segregation. But Warren made a fifth vote -- and then visited the skeptical justices one by one, winning them over with his unpretentious style and convincing them that the Court and the country would benefit if the opinion were unanimous. Thanks to Warren's light-handed leadership, he was able to read the unanimous Brown opinion to a spellbound courtroom in 1954.

Chief justices are not the only members of the Court who may succeed or fail because of their judicial temperament; associate justices too are often hampered or aided by their inability or ability to get along with their colleagues. Personal and intellectual insecurity, for example, has often limited a justice's influence over time. Justice Harry Blackmun is both lionized and vilified as the author of Roe v. Wade (1973), but he was often unable to persuade his colleagues to join his opinions because of his difficulty producing them on time: he agonized over his drafts and called them "inadequate and hesitant," ignoring the advice of Justice Hugo Black, who had urged him to "go for the jugular." By contrast, some of the most successful justices have also been the most self-confident. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor often spoke for majorities of the Court during her service from 1981 to 2006, defining the Court's positions on the most controversial questions of American life, from religion to affirmative action. Although she liked to keep her options open, once she made up her mind, she refused to be budged. In her chambers, she sat on a hand-stitched pillow embroidered with the motto: "Maybe in Error but Never in Doubt."

Of course, a justice doesn't have to win majorities to wield lasting influence: some of the most respected justices in history made their marks through dissenting opinions, which tried to keep their colleagues intellectually honest and were eventually vindicated by history. Justice John Marshall Harlan, who served from 1877 to 1911, was known as the "great dissenter" because of his prescient and often lonely dissents from opinions refusing to recognize the civil rights of African Americans after Reconstruction. Harlan alone dissented in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 opinion upholding railroad segregation; more than 50 years later, as Thurgood Marshall prepared to argue Brown v. Board of Education before the Court, he would return to Harlan's dissent for inspiration. (Like many justices before and after him -- including Louis Brandeis, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- Marshall was eventually appointed to the Court after earning a reputation arguing cases before it.) On the Court today, Justice Antonin Scalia is noted for his stylish and often biting dissenting opinions, which he hopes will influence future generations. History suggests, however, that justices like Scalia, who view departures from ideological principles as a sign of heresy, have tended to be less successful than justices like William Rehnquist, a more pragmatic conservative who was willing to modulate his views when he thought the good of the Court and the country required him to. As a result, Rehnquist as chief won the affection of his liberal as well as conservative colleagues and helped to reshape the law in his own image -- a testament to the centrality of judicial temperament.

About the Author
Jeffrey Rosen is a Professor of Law at George Washington University and legal affairs editor of the NEW REPUBLIC. He is the author of the companion book to the PBS Series, THE SUPREME COURT: THE PERSONALITIES AND RIVALRIES THAT DEFINED AMERICA (Times Books).
Photo of William Rehnquist.
As chief justice, William Rehnquist was a pragmatic conservative who was willing to modulate his views when he thought the good of the Court required him to.

Reproduction courtesy of Corbis Images


Did You Know? Justice Charles Evans Hughes resigned from the Court in 1916 to run against Woodrow Wilson for President.  He lost the election, but returned to the Court 14 years later, in 1930, as Chief Justice.