Book Review: “The Center Seat” by Professor Peter Irons

A Professor's Perspective on Current Events

 Professor Peter Irons, Ph.D., M.A., J.D.
By Professor Peter Irons, Ph.D., M.A., J.D.

From the brutal murder of a law student to an explosive showdown in the Supreme Court, The Center Seat: Life and Death In the Supreme Court by The Great Courses professor Peter Irons is as entertaining as it is informative. It’s the perfect summer read for lifelong learners.

One of the driving factors behind the success of writers such as John Grisham is that packed in-between the page-turning storylines and witty banter, you’re getting fascinating insights into the workings of the law. Of course, it’s not likely that many real-life lawyers go through the same experiences as Mitch McDeere, but who hasn’t been slightly more skeptical of a lawyer’s billing processes after reading The Firm?

The Center Seat: Life and Death In the Supreme Court provides you with the same deep-dive into the inner-workings of the American Supreme Court system, through a fictional look at the real-life legal processes, the people who are involved in bringing cases before the justices, the selection of the justices, and how the decisions are ultimately rendered. Written by a political activist, legal scholar, and professor emeritus of political science, the insights provided through The Center Seat are both illuminating and sometimes a little shocking.

We have been a fan of Professor Peter Irons since he taught our popular course History of the Supreme Court, so we were thrilled for a chance to preview his foray into fiction. However, being representatives of The Great Courses, we were prepared to not love it if we didn’t also learn from it. Professor Irons delivers a book that proves to be just as insightful as it is entertaining. It might be expected that a novel about the processes of the Supreme Court would be dry and stuffy. After all, it doesn’t seem likely that writing about a group of justices, sitting around discussing the nuances of the Constitution, could translate into a page-turner. Yet it does.

The story follows Andrea “Andy” Roboff, a liberal Harvard Law School editor, who, after writing a controversial article, scores a sought-after position clerking for a justice who doesn’t exactly share her outlook. This unconventional juxtaposition of beliefs provides a snappy introduction to the relationships and personalities of each character. One of the most refreshing and compelling elements is that the book remains unconventional throughout. From unconventional relationships to the unconventional and surprising measures that probably do take place to get Supreme Court justices nominated, the story is anything but dry and stuffy.

While various smaller storylines reveal some of the common practices among politicians that average citizens would find shocking, the overarching storyline looks at the legal process through the lens of a topic that has recently been brought back into the spotlight: the death penalty. It’s clear from the first chapter about how the protagonist—and, by extension, the author—feels about the death penalty. However, Professor Irons sprinkles the narrative with references to real-life cases and provides engaging dialogue and debates that deliver illuminating perspectives on this controversial subject no matter what you personally believe. Added to those are the insights you pick up about how the Court operates and the revealing ways people can manipulate the law for personal gain. By the time you close the book, you’ll have a whole new level of appreciation for how our judicial system works.

If you’re looking for an entertaining beach-read that will leave you with more than sand in your shoes when you’re done, give The Center Seat a try.

For more with Professor Irons, check out History of the Supreme Court Wondrium!