Oliver Wendell Holmes: Sage of the Supreme Court (Oxford Portraits) Reviews

UPDATE TIME: 2017-04-24 
Review Score: 4 out of 5 star From 0 user ratings

"This book drew out in me more empathy with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. than I thought possible. He took to law thinking that it would provide him the notoriety and intellectual verve he wanted, but found that the actual practice of law to be less than fulfilling, especially if your deeper interests are in philosophy, literature, and deep discussion. As an attorney, who also enjoys philosophy, I can relate. Some days, I feel like a old-timey flycatcher, dealing with clients and the government, fought (and often ignored) by both -- in the weeds rather souring through the clouds. It can be frustrating. But Holmes provides the model to follow. Like him, we can relentlessly pursue our passions by making time for them. Holmes, even to his widowed final years, wrote and discussed and wrote and discussed the ideas and topics that animated him. He wrote letters to many friends discussing books he was reading and ideas he was mulling over. It was the blogging of its day. Only with better prose. And less trolling. Still, Holmes never gave up his passions about philosophy and law.

My admiration for his moxie and empathy for his situation do not necessarily translate into agreement with his ultimate legal positions. While this short biography did not say it directly, Holmes seemed to have a strong legal positivist streak -- along the lines of John Austin's law as command of the sovereign. And here, Holmes's sovereign is the democratic majority. I do not agree with the strong positivism of Holmes. It feels too much like "might makes right." The softer positivism of HLA Hart, in which some societal norms (which provide some limit on the validity of laws of the sovereign) come in, gives me less pause, though I am not a committed natural lawyer (yet) in the tradition of Lon Fuller.

Holmes thought the work of deciding cases was not, at times, ruling on the law, but instead was deciding a public policy issue. The disagreement I have with Holmes here is over what we mean by a policy issue. By equating, say, the decision over whether who bore the burden in an negligence case (a question in the common law tradition) with something like what the tax rate should be (something in pure policy) hides what judges do in the common law tradition when deciding cases. It is not merely picking one party over the other (hey, which guy do we think should bear the burden), and either choice is good as the other. Ruling on aspects of law is something different. When the judge looks at the matter of law before her, the rule needs to be one that reflects the norms of the community (as much as possible) and provide a guide for behavior going forward. That may fall within the broadest category of policy, but it has fundamental differences from other areas of policy-making.

It was most interesting to learn how Holmes became the publicly known giant that he is. The man was well known in legal circles (which is perfectly acceptable), but through the concerted efforts of Felix Frankfurter (a future Justice) and other progressive reformers (of which Holmes was a fellow traveler but not a true believer) to make Holmes well known. But whatever the final verdict you have on Oliver Wendell Holmes, he is an American jurist that needs to be grappled with.

This book was a fine introduction, a quick read, and worth the time.
" said.

" A fine short version of White's celebrated Holmes biography. Accessible and well written, this book places more emphasis on Holmes's life and character than his scholarly work. Nevertheless, the analysis that is here is quite good--White depicts Holmes as a man who was neither a sage nor a particularly progressive politician--and most readers should find this to be a more than satisfactory introduction to the justice's extraordinarily lengthy career. " said.

" SuperficialThis is a very short biography of Holmes, so I wasn't expecting much, but I did expect to understand the relevance and influence of such an icon in the legal history of the United States. However, apart from learning some biographical facts, I was left with the same questions about why this judge has the reputation that he has even today. I guess a more detailed biography is necessary for answering them. " said.

"Interesting life. I picked it up because his name comes up in my Supreme Court unit and he was wounded at the Civil War Battle of Ball's Bluff in my hometown of Leesburg. His experiences at Ball's Bluff and other battles where he was wounded (twice more) were harrowing. As a Supreme Court Justice he would have made present day conservatives happy with his opposition to (not that they used this term at the time) "legislating from the bench." And he would have made present-day liberals happy with decisions protecting the actions of unions...though he did have social darwinism tendencies. His relationship with Theodore Roosevelt was fun but short-lived. " said.

"This is helpful short biography of Justice Holmes. White sets as his major theme Holmes Jr.’s quest to be more notable than his father. There is some attention paid to Holmes distinctive literary flair and passion for getting to the root of the law, the philosophy behind the law. Given that one of the recurring elements was commenting on Holmes’ tendency to use a kind of unique literary-like style in writing opinions, it would have been nice to see this contrast displayed through more examples. White also aims to get behind some of the legacy of Holmes as the paragon of progressive legal values, showing his philosophy to be more practical and less idealistic than that. White seems to imply that Holmes’ legacy is made more through the promotion of Felix Frankfurter and publications like The New Republic. White incorporates a reasonable amount of primary material from Holmes’ writings, but I could have stood with a bit more to get a better feel for his style, which is an important part of his legacy. He does give some attention to two of Holmes most notable legal contributions: his dissent in the Lochner case and his evolution on free speech issues. Both are downplayed by White in this writing, mostly with the aim of minimizing the progressive hero status sometimes ascribed to Holmes. In my opinion, a good biography will humanize a notable person while still preserving their significance. White’s biography, I feel, may have pushed a bit too far into humanizing Holmes so as to make it curious why he would be chosen among other notable justices for this publishing." said.

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