There are two theses running through The Oath, Jeffrey Toobin’s follow-up to his 2008 Supreme Court profile, The Nine. The first is that former constitutional law professor Barack Obama and current Chief Justice John Roberts have fundamentally opposed theories of constitutional interpretation. As Toobin writes, it is Roberts who is an “apostle of change” and Obama who is “determined to hold on to an older version of the meaning of the Constitution.” The book bills itself by this difference, but Toobin fails to deliver a thorough portrait on the president’s end. Though he convincingly argues that judicial matters are not high among the president’s priorities, Toobin offers little about Obama’s legal philosophy. The Oath is really an up-close look at recent high-profile cases on the Supreme Court’s docket.
That brings us to the book’s second thesis: Constitutional law is politics by other means, at least in the current day. This sentiment pervades the discussion of the cases at the book’s core: District of Columbia v. Heller’s location of an individual right to a handgun in the Second Amendment; Citizens United and the Court’s equation of corporate campaign contributions with speech; and this summer’s decision to uphold the individual mandate in Obama’s healthcare law. In each of these cases, Toobin sees a battle between Democrats and Republicans. Legal theories serve as proxies for partisan politics. Some might view this equivalence as overly simplistic and the emphasis on big-ticket cases as unduly narrow. Yet it is difficult to refute the notion that the Court has taken a conservative tack—even prior to Roberts—that relies on overturning legal precedent.
Overall, The Oath is an entertaining read that provides lively personal accounts of the justices and that makes complex legal issues understandable. It is a welcome portrait of the contemporary Supreme Court.