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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For example, on Barron v. Baltimore, the 1833 case in which the Court held that the Bill of Rights restrains only the federal government and not the states, the entry efficiently notes the reemergence of the issue with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and closes with a reference to the Court's application of provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states that, overturning Barron, began more than 90 years later in -Gitlow v. New York (1925).

Likewise, there is Carter v. Carter Coal Co., the 1936 case in which the Court held unconstitutional a New Deal statute designed to regulate the production of coal. Congress based its authority for the law on the Article I power to regulate interstate commerce, but the Court said that clause had limits which Congress had overstepped. The entry on the case observes that, within a year, the Court had changed its mind, and the clause then "became the basis for a massive restructuring of the federal-state relationship." Moving to the end of the 20th century, the entry notes how the Court forged a new direction as it found excessive some congressional invocations of the commerce clause, starting with United States v. Lopez in 1995.

As a reference book, the Guide will be used not for hours at a time but on this occasion and then that, to look up a case and then, maybe, another one or two. So a user of the Guide may not grasp, in reading a particular entry, what all of the entries taken together demonstrate: how the judicial power has come to be exercised over the past two centuries. Within this story there is another story, not one the Guide undertakes to tell but which is there for the historically minded reader: how the exercise of judicial power has expanded well beyond what the framers of the Constitution anticipated.

The Guide in this edition, and any others to come, will continue to find an audience among lawyers. But it is also a book for the educated layman wanting to know the basics of particular cases. Inevitably, for the lawyer as for the layman, the question arises as to whether all of what the Guide contains is located somewhere online. What I found is that, while you can look up any of the cases in the Guide online, and read the opinions in their entirety, there does not seem to be a site that replicates what the Guide does in selecting and concisely analyzing such a large number of significant cases.

The Guide thus makes its own case for what is still known as a book, that thing with covers and paper. That is manifestly to its credit.

Terry Eastland, publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of several books on law and government, including Benchmarks: Great Constitutional Controversies in the Supreme Court.