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Chasing the Chiefs: A Review of "The Chief Justices" by Daniel A. Cotter

What is the significance of being the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court? And why should that position be treated any differently than the other Associate Justices? Well, after reading Daniel Cotter’s The Chief Justices, readers quickly realize that the inherent power and the high pedestal that these judges hold allows them to form and mold a lasting legacy. Or as Cotter points out – all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

In this fascinating book, Daniel Cotter has strung together the elaborate history of our nation’s highest court and the men that have held the helm. From the beginning to the end, the author draws the reader into a story of our nation, its history, and the court system that has seen its valleys and its peaks. Cotter is able to turn a subject, that can oftentimes be described as dry at best, into a thought provoking and page turning tale.

An enviable structure

While most history books start at the beginning of the subject’s life and follow the usual road to the final demise, this book presents what I would like to call a Swiss Army Knife structure. The book begins at the commencement of our nation and the founding of our judicial system. It then travels through each Chief Justice and his court, stopping at historical events along the way. And finally, the book comes to a close with our present day Chief Justice and his yet-to-be legacy.

Like a multifaceted knife, this book can be used for different purposes and by different readers. For the history buffs who can pick up a biography of an elder statesperson and plow through it in a week, this is your book. Cotter has not only the intelligent gravitas, but also the legal writing skills to present an extremely researched and thoroughly debated topic that is often hard to capture. These history readers, whether attorneys or not, can discover the legacy of each Chief Justice not only through historical works, but also through important cases that were litigated through the Court.

For the young attorney, who has recently graduated law school and is trying to make sense of both the history of the Supreme Court and its role, this book presents the “legacy” cases that have shaped our jurisprudence and places them in historical context. The cases that you have heard throughout your previous three law school years, begin to take form and become even clearer as you progress from case to case and Chief to Chief. There is a satisfying feeling when you finish this book and can easily identify the reasons behind John Marshall’s powerful legacy or John Rutledge's rejection.

And lastly, for the quick reference guide. Try picking up any historical book or any biography and jumping straight to a certain time period. This will likely result in confusion and wasted time. However, Cotter has broken down this book into eight parts and 20 chapters. This takes the reader up to a bird’s eye view of our nation’s legal history and divides this history into certain periods. Whether it is Marshall taking the Court to the level of supremacy or the Roberts’ Court taking a conservative approach, a reader can pick a chapter and quickly grasp the key issues and important cases that have formed that era. And within each of the eight parts of the book, the 17 Chief Justices fit in nicely. Cotter goes through a brief biography of each man and follows with important cases that were decided. The structure of his writing allows for this book to be used as a historical work, a legal casebook, or a reference guide that can be picked up at any time.

Cotter does not forget to include many of the Associate Justices who have sat on the high bench. These men and women have also helped form the legacy of the Court and the author makes sure to point out when and how they had an impact.

With this book on the shelf, I look forward to being able to pull it off anytime I’m in need of a quick refresher or a historical guide. And with Cotter’s help, we will continue to chase the Chiefs and learn their legacies.


Daniel Cotter is a prolific Tweeter and can be found @SCOTUSBios.

You can find his book here.

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