Linda Greenhouse Unpacks a Landmark Year at the Supreme Court


Veteran Supreme Court reporter and Lecturer in Law Linda Greenhouse ’78 MSL chronicles the political tumult that rocked the Supreme Court’s 2020–21 term in her new book, Justice on the Brink: The Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Rise of Amy Coney Barrett, and Twelve Months that Transformed the Supreme Court (Random House, 2021). Greenhouse asks if the court still bears Chief Justice John Roberts’s ideological imprint — or whether it now orbits former President Donald Trump.

Linda Greenhouse
To answer that question, Justice on the Brink traces how the court’s aura of insulation, long said to transcend the vagaries of politics — what Greenhouse calls the institution’s “shared frame of assumption” — gave way last year. “2020–21 was the term the fourth wall disappeared,” she argues.

Greenhouse sets the scene on Oct. 26, 2020, eight days before the United States would determine its next president. That afternoon, the Senate confirmed Barrett — “the chosen one,” Greenhouse writes, who clinched the court’s conservative supermajority. Barrett’s contentious ascension, five weeks after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, she argues, presaged the constitutional dangers to come, especially when Trump’s allies sought to overturn his electoral loss. Greenhouse stresses how rapidly political peril overtook the court: four months prior, Ginsburg had presided over the court’s liberal bloc, and Roberts appeared to dominate the court’s jurisprudence.

Justice on the Brink
Greenhouse wrote the chapters, each of which corresponds to a month, in real time as the COVID-19 pandemic, legal challenges to the election, and the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection unfolded. Her account takes stock of the political forces that raged beyond the court’s proverbial (and, on account of COVID-19, virtual) sanctum; details the compromises, deals, and alliances that justices struck and forged with one another; studies the term’s most consequential decisions; and pinpoints the moments when judicial politics and jurisprudential practice collided. Justice on the Brink records the recent past, but Greenhouse also writes of the court’s contested future.

Linda Greenhouse is Clinical Lecturer in Law and Senior Research Scholar in Law at Yale Law School. A reporter who covered the Supreme Court at The New York Times from 1978 to 2008, Greenhouse won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in Beat Reporting; her Times column now appears biweekly. In addition to Justice on the Brink, Greenhouse has authored Becoming Justice Blackmun, The U.S. Supreme Court: A Very Short Introduction, and Just a Journalist: Reflections on the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between. She co-authored Before Roe v. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling and The Burger Court and the Rise of the Judicial Right with Yale Law professors Reva Siegel ’86 and Michael J. Graetz, respectively.