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Originally published Sunday, June 16, 2013 at 5:00 AM

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‘The Roberts Court:’ informed look at today’s Supreme Court

Marcia Cole’s “The Roberts Court” is a worthy guide to the Supreme Court’s seven years under Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., and includes analysis of decisions with implications for education in Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“The Roberts Court: The Struggle for the Constitution”

by Marcia Coyle

Simon & Schuster, 407 pp., $28

Marcia Coyle possesses the background to prove that she is one of the most knowledgeable observers of the U.S. Supreme Court alive today. In her book about the sometimes mysterious, uniquely influential tribunal, Coyle explores the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of Supreme Court rulings over the past seven years — since John Roberts Jr. became chief justice, since both President George W. Bush and President Obama made other new appointments as elderly justices retired.

Coyle, a journalist with a law degree, writes about the court regularly for the National Law Journal, a weekly news magazine. Her book follows by about six months a book by Jeffrey Toobin, “The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court.” Toobin is also a lawyer-journalist who also writes regularly about the court, for The New Yorker weekly magazine.

The Toobin and Coyle books mention a lot of the same cases and some of the same anecdotes. Toobin’s book happened to arrive first.

Coyle’s book follows by about three months Sarah Garland’s book “Divided We Fail: The Story of an African American Community That Ended an Era of School Desegregation.” A substantial portion of Coyle’s book revolves around the embattled same school-desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., treated in greater detail by Garland’s book.

Despite all that overlapping with Toobin and Garland, Coyle’s book is worthy for avid followers of the Supreme Court because of her insights that differ from those of the previous authors.

As for potential readers of Coyle’s book who would be using it as a primer concerning the contemporary Supreme Court, she is a first-rate guide — an authoritative reporter and a clear writer. So is Toobin, but his book — this is a fact, not a criticism — is much less Seattle-centric. Regarding Garland’s book, it focuses more on the Louisville nexus than on the Seattle nexus, making the Coyle account that much more attractive to Seattle-area readers.

The Seattle school-desegregation ruling became public during June 2007; the so-called “Roberts court” has changed since then because of Obama’s appointments of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. An overriding reality that has not changed, however, is the significant number of 5-4 votes, with Anthony Kennedy frequently serving as the swing vote between the court’s “liberal” foursome (all appointed by Democratic Party presidents) and the court’s “conservative” foursome (all appointed by Republican Party presidents).

Besides the school-desegregation rulings, Coyle builds her narrative around cases involving gun ownership, money (especially donations to political campaigns) and the health-care reform proposed by the Obama administration.

Those are predicable choices — Toobin’s book also features last year’s dramatic ruling about health insurance — but wise choices that allow Coyle to delineate the judicial philosophies of the nine justices while simultaneously sorting out when those philosophies give way to partisan politics. In general, Coyle seems persuaded that rarely do individual justices or voting blocs of justices descend into partisan politics.

Coyle’s insights are interesting throughout the case studies. For example, even though the “conservative” justices generally decry judicial activism and tend to give lip service to the original intent of the Constitution’s framers, Coyle remarks that the justices are “willing to step into the shoes of local elected officials, whatever their judgments, to provide the final answer.” That occurred in gun rulings covered by Coyle, and will almost surely happen again.

Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the author of eight nonfiction books.

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