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No quick answer on book proposal

By Ronnie Thomas
rthomas@decaturdaily.com · 340-2438

When 80-year-old Chief Justice William Rehnquist announced he had cancer during the fall of 2004, the head of The Penguin Press called Jan Crawford Greenburg and asked if she’d be interested in writing a book on the court.

In an answer that might amaze some, she responded, “I don’t know.”

Greenburg, an accomplished writer and TV analyst, knew what a daunting task it would be.

‘Real opportunity’

“Here I was, working with four kids. It was a lot to take on,” she said. “Ultimately, I concluded it was a real opportunity, to tell the important story about the court that was poised for change.”

Penguin published the book in January to wide acclaim. Greenburg said it took about 11/2 years to pull it together.

“I thought I was going to be covering the court led by Rehnquist, but the story changed on us with the new chief justice (John Roberts),” she said. “And to the surprise of everyone, Justice (Sandra Day) O’Connor decided she was going to step down. She occupied the pivotal swing vote.

“Now, President Bush was in a position to replace her with a more conservative justice and really change the direction of the court.”

Greenburg interviewed eight of the nine current justices. She said she couldn’t reveal the name of the justice she did not interview. She also interviewed O’Connor.

“All of the justices are so different, very much like nine distinctive individuals,” Greenburg said. “They have their own offices, their own staffs and the court almost operates like nine separate law firms. They design their chambers to reflect some of their personalities.”

Greenburg said she was grateful that the justices trusted her enough to sit down and talk about the issues.

“It took a while to build the relationship and to establish that trust,” she said. “It’s just like when covering any beat. It takes time to develop sources.”

In addition to interviewing the justices, Greenburg read their secret memos and spoke with scores of law clerks. She said she walked away with more respect for the court as an institution and for the justices.

“It’s really a place where you’ve got nine incredibly smart people, some with very different views about the law, all struggling to get the right answers,” she said. “Sometimes their deeply held views put them in sharp conflict with one another, but they’re all sincerely trying to work their way through the cases. The court is an institution unlike any in our system. They’re not horse trading, not trading votes and not going into backrooms. They’re trying to interpret the law.”

With her first book a bestseller, what’s next?

“My husband told me if I write another book I might better look for a new husband,” she said. “I don’t know. I think he was joking.”

Greenburg said she couldn’t have written the book without her parents, to whom she dedicated “Supreme Conflict.”

“The writing was really intensive last summer. They took care of the kids down in Alabama, and Mom came up here. She cleans my house better than I do.”

So what about an autobiography?

“I had much rather write about other people,” she said.

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