Book Review: The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions, Second Edition

The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions, Second Edition. Kermit L. Hall and James W. Ely Jr., Editors.  Oxford University Press, 2009.  ($35.00 | 499 pages | Hardcover: 978-0-19-537939-6).

The first edition of The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions has been a reference staple in law libraries for over a decade. Edited by the late Kermit Hall, it contains summaries of the 400 most notable Supreme Court cases. The new edition with James Ely at the helm is an obvious update, with the addition of fifty cases from the Court’s recent terms. The tried and true format remains, and this second edition will rightfully find its way to almost as many law libraries as the first one has.

Case summaries are listed alphabetically. Both a party name index and a topical index appear at the end of the book, along with a bibliography for further research on particular topics. The rest of the appendix is composed of materials every law library already possesses several times over. There is a quick history of Supreme Court appointments (i.e. date of nomination/confirmation, nominating president, etc.), a short glossary of basic legal terms, and the text of the United States Constitution.

Each case summary includes basic information like the official citation (unless unavailable, in which case unofficial citations are substituted), argument and decision dates, the voting lineup, and a breakdown of opinions, concurrences, and dissents. This is followed by several paragraphs giving the case’s background, the holding, and the significance of the case’s impact. These succinct capsules contain just enough information to jog the memory of a forgetful student or hold the researcher over until she has time to consult the full opinion firsthand. The case summaries are signed by their respective authors, the ranks of whom consist largely of law professors.

Over 160 of these individuals lent their time and (frequently notable) names to the case summaries, and the quality is readily apparent. They reliably explain the important points of complicated Supreme Court cases with an economy of words. With the additional case summaries, no drop in quality, and a relatively low price of thirty-five dollars, most libraries already possessing the first edition will probably purchase the second to keep their collections more current. Nevertheless, I can think of one heretical reason a cash-strapped library might forgo this new volume.

Wikipedia has rapidly growing coverage of Supreme Court cases. As in the Oxford Guide, these cases can be found by searching party name or topic. Wikipedia’s coverage of recent cases is broader and more current than that of the Oxford Guide. Wikipedia articles on these cases contain all the information that can be found in the Oxford Guide and more. In fact, its relative glut of information compared to the Oxford Guide would be its largest drawback for some users. Wikipedia is a more natural research tool for law students and younger attorneys, though, who will find skimming its articles for the relevant information a familiar and no more time-consuming process. Taking this into account, the most important remaining advantage the Oxford Guide has is the authority brought by its cadre of authors.  This is more than enough reason for most law libraries to purchase it.

Reviewed by Jacob Sayward, Serials Librarian at Fordham Law’s Leo T. Kissam Memorial Library

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June 2009

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