Censorship in the Supreme Court gift shop
Nell Scovell: If It Please the Court Gift Shop
Recently, on a just-spring day, I visited the Supreme Court, in Washington, D.C. Upstairs, Justice Antonin Scalia was insisting that a high murder rate was “all the more reason to allow a homeowner to have a handgun,” while downstairs I was examining the court’s self-supporting, elliptical marble staircase.
Since mounting the court’s front steps, I’d been thinking about Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. I’d devoured the book when it came out, in September 2007, admiring the CNN analyst’s first-rate reporting and his ability to write entertainingly about the arcane.
Now—full disclosure—Toobin is a friend of mine, and while walking through an exhibit on Chief Justice John Marshall, I spotted a sign for the gift shop and had a brilliant idea: I could snap a cell-phone photo of his book about the Supreme Court on a Supreme Court shelf. O.K., it was a silly idea. But it gave me a reason to leave the exhibit.
The gift shop is just down the hall from the elliptical staircase, and bookshelves line the wall to the right of the door. The first book that caught my eye was Justice Clarence Thomas’s My Grandfather’s Son, and I smiled. The last names “Thomas” and “Toobin” would be next to each other alphabetically. I could include both in my photo. My eyes scanned right … and bumped into Becoming Justice Blackmun, by Linda Greenhouse.
Odd. I figured maybe I was looking at the section for individual justices, so I sidled left to a bookcase featuring more general books about the court. The Nine would be there for sure. But it wasn’t.
I approached the cashiers. Two of them were working side-by-side, and we had the following conversation:
Me: Excuse me. Do you have the book The Nine?
Cashier #1: No.
Me: It’s a recent book about the Supreme Court on the New York Times best-seller list.
Cashier #1: I know. We don’t carry it.
Me: Why not?
Cashier #2: (jumping in) Everything we sell in the store has to go through a committee and maybe they haven’t gotten to it yet—
Cashier #1: (cutting her off) It’s not a completely positive book about the Supreme Court.
Me: Wow. That sounds like you only sell propaganda.
Cashier #1: They won’t let anything negative be sold here.
So the book’s absence wasn’t odd … it was intentional. I headed to the Supreme Court Press Room—also on the lower floor—to find out more about this “Committee.” They referred me to the Supreme Court Historical Society, which runs the gift shop.
I contacted Kelly Harris, the Supreme Court Historical Society’s director of communications, and asked her about the “Committee” and how it operates. It turns out … she’s it. She’s the Committee. I told her that the cashiers had suggested that The Nine wasn’t sold in the gift shop because it didn’t present a favorable account of the court, and she flatly denied that content had anything to do with it.
“I have honestly not reviewed the book myself,” Harris said. “Most of the time, if there’s a book about the court, normally the publisher would send us a copy, but in this case I don’t even know who the publisher is. Mostly vendors approach us and we pick and choose. I have a huge stack on my desk but I haven’t seen that book. ”
“Seriously?” I asked. The director of communications for the Supreme Court Historical Society hadn’t seen the book about the Supreme Court that both Time magazine and The New York Times had listed as one of 2007’s top-ten nonfiction books?
“No,” Harris said. “I read the review, but I haven’t read the book. But I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to reviews in the [Washington] Post. I skim all the books myself.”
She added that she’d be willing to take a look at the book and encouraged me to “have his publishers give me a call and I’d be happy to review it.”
I asked her about another book that I didn’t see on the shop’s shelves—Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s 1979 best-seller, The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court.
“That one I’m not familiar with,” said Harris. “I’ve only been here for six years. Maybe it was carried, but there hasn’t been interest in recent years.” She explained further, “We choose based on what we know are customers are looking for … if there’s something people want.”
But that doesn’t jibe with the shop’s prominent display of John Niven’s Salmon P. Chase: A Biography, which yesterday had an Amazon sales rank of #527,990. The Nine ranked #191.
Toobin reacted with amusement when I relayed the story to him in an email. He emailed me back, “Perhaps my next book will be more satisfactory to The Committee.”
In the meantime, the next time you’re in the Supreme Court and want to read what The New York Times called “An erudite outsider’s account of the cloistered court’s inner workings,” don’t expect to find it in the gift shop. But if you’re looking for a copy of Marshall, the Courthouse Mouse, you’re all set.