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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

“Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes”, by Sheldon M. Novick

522 pages, Little, Brown and Company, ISBN-13: 978-0316613255

Richard Posner once described Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as “the most illustrious figure in the history of American law”, and although Sheldon Novick’s biography appeared more than a half century after the Justice’s death, it was the, in-fact, first ever complete, full-length biography of Holmes. Oliver Wendell Holmes was one of few people to play a major role in some of the biggest events in American history, from being a Union soldier in the Civil War to serving on the Supreme Court during World War I. This book certainly captures the unique mark left by Holmes, not only on the justice system, but on history as a whole; particularly, the author expresses very well Holmes’ passion for the law and the way he revolutionized the legal process almost as a science.

Honorable Justice was a quick read that took me on a tour of Holmes’ life, accomplishments, and circle of friends. The book is a straightforward chronological telling of Holmes’ progression from son of a prominent New England family (his father was a co-founder of the Atlantic magazine), to Civil War battlefields (where he was shot multiple times), to law practice and writing, to the top Massachusetts court, to about 20-years on the Supreme Court. Holmes was somewhat contradictory, often surrounded by liberals and championed by them, but sometimes disappointing in his personal views. His personal life is also left a bit mysterious here, as it is hinted that Holmes had many affairs on his regular trips to England and his relationship with his wife was not very strong. The book relies quite a bit on Holmes’ own writing to capture his mood regarding something personal or his view on something legal. Holmes has had a long lasting influence on the law. But the book is much more concerned about the temporal confines of Holmes’ life and does not discuss his impact due to his writings and Supreme Court opinions.

However, I the book is light on some of the major political and legal issues that were actually faced by the Supreme Court during Holmes’ years of service, casually brushing over huge landmark issues – such as the Teapot Dome scandal – and even a lot of the racial and gender strife that was going on all over the country at that time. Instead, the author focuses a lot on Holmes’ dynamic relationships with his fellow justices which, while fascinating, doesn’t give justice (sorry) to the importance of the actual decisions they were making. All-in-all, this is an inspiring read for anyone who has an interest in the fundamentals in law or has read Holmes’ Common Law and wants to know a little more about the man behind those ideas. But in terms of getting any real, practical education on Supreme Court cases of that time, there are probably much better books on the topic.

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