The Magazine

Case by Case

The new Oxford edition of decisions that made history.

Nov 9, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 08 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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The Oxford Guide
to United States Supreme Court Decisions

by Kermit L. Hall and James W. Ely Jr.
Oxford, 528 pp., $35

In 1992 Oxford University Press brought out The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. Organized alphabetically, the more than thousand-page book had entries on the Court's history and current operation, the justices themselves, legal doctrines and vocabulary, and the Court's leading decisions, such as Marbury v. Madison--which confirmed the power of constitutional review, and without which the book would have been much smaller, if indeed a book at all--and, more recognizably, Brown v. Board of Education, which declared unconstitutional segregated public schools.

Seven years later the editor of the Companion, Kermit Hall, put together another alphabetically structured but much shorter Oxford book: The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions. The Guide treated the most important decisions, like Marbury and Brown--some 440 in all. Not surprisingly, since Hall edited both books, many of the case entries he used for the Guide were originally composed for the Companion. He edited some of those entries while also adding new ones on big decisions handed down after the Companion was published.

In 2005, Hall updated the Companion in a second edition. And now, the Guide has been published in a second edition. It includes case entries first composed for the 2005 Companion as well as entries on decisions rendered since 2005. Among the cases treated here that are not in the first edition are Bush v. Gore (2000), the Michigan Affirmative Action cases (2003), the Texas and Kentucky "Ten Commandments" cases (2005), and the Enemy Combatant Cases (2004, 2006, and 2008).

Oxford identifies Hall, who died in 2006, and the legal historian James W. Ely, as coeditors. It's a fitting designation for Hall, since the Companion and the Guide were his books to begin with. Moreover, Hall himself contributed more entries to the Guide than anyone else, with 49 in the second edition. The cases Hall wrote on range in subject matter from voting rights to racial set-asides to federalism to free speech to public school prayer to abortion.

Each entry begins with the name of the case, its official citation in the United States Reports, and other basic information. The decision is described and analyzed, and notable concurrences or dissents noted. So are subsequent responses to rulings in later cases or in legislation passed by Congress.

While there are more liberal scholars than not among the more than 100 contributors--drawn as most are from legal and political science faculties, hardly Republican redoubts--conservative scholars are not absent. They include Nelson Lund, who contributed the entry on District of Columbia v. Heller, the 2008 case in which the Court adopted the individual-rights interpretation of the Second Amendment; and Gail Heriot, who composed the entry on Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (and a companion case from Louisville), the 2007 cases in which the Court struck down race-based policies designed to achieve racial balance in public schools.

Unfortunately for this new edition, however, it is marred in ways especially noticeable in a reference work. Proofreaders evidently missed on page 205 "Frank-furter" (the justice) and on page 218 "Fulli-love" (the name of a party in a 1980 race set-aside case) and on page 109 "theburden." Inexplicably, some contributors aren't listed in the directory of contributors, among them (to cite one example) Howard Gillman, who wrote the entry on Bush v. Gore--and in case you wondered, is professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California.

And on occasion the Guide stumbles. For example, on Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 case in which the Court explicitly declined to overrule Roe v. Wade, the entry states that Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy "were more concerned with the institutional danger that [Casey] presented to the Court than with settling the abortion issue by outlawing it."

Of course, the Court could not have outlawed "the abortion issue." But it could have overruled Roe v. Wade and returned the issue to the states--which was the critical question before the Court.

Still, having read many of the entries, and assessing the volume in terms of its case-specific objectives, I'd say this Guide deserves high marks. Some entries stand out for their obvious excellence--in particular the ones on school desegregation cases by Dennis J. Hutchison of the University of Chicago Law School--and some of the best entries are on older cases raising issues that the Court later revisited.