An influential political scientist died on December 20: David M. O’Brien (1951-2018) had devoted his professional life to the study of the politics of the US Supreme Court. Storm Center (1986) is the best known of his books.
O’Brien was a research associate to Chief Justice Warren Burger for a period in the mid 1980s, and this experience gave him insight into the workings ‘behind the curtain,’ and especially into the way the Justices compete with one another for influence in setting the court’s agenda.
O’Brien’s scholarship shows how this jockeying, combined with increases in the number of law clerks and the proliferation of individual dissents and concurrences, has over time undermined collegiality on the court and turned the Justices into administrators of their own separate fiefdoms.
The Thing to Know:
O’Brien’s final book, published in 2017, looked back at the institutional politics of the Brown v. Board decision, the epic school desegregation case of 1954. O’Brien emphasizes that the Justices thought it necessary to step up, to overcome their reluctance to force such an intense and partisan issue, in the face of Congressional indifference.