by Charles L. Zelden (ed). Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2007. 441pp. Cloth. $95.00. ISBN: 9781851097029.

Reviewed by Paul M. Collins, Jr., Department of Political Science, University of North Texas. E-Mail: pmcollins [at]


While there is no short supply of both texts and encyclopedias devoted to the federal judicial process, each year marks the introduction of new volumes into the market. Textbook treatments of the federal judiciary are most commonly organized in a topical fashion, devoting separate chapters to, for example, the district courts, courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court. Encyclopedias, and similar reference volumes, tend to be organized alphabetically, with anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand words discussing various aspects of the federal courts. Texts on the judicial process are overwhelmingly targeted at undergraduate classes. Encyclopedias are aimed at library adoption and for use by researchers and lecturers as reference texts.

THE JUDICIAL BRANCH OF FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: PEOPLE, PROCESS, AND POLITICS, edited by historian Charles L. Zelden, represents an interesting example of the integration of a judicial process text and a reference volume. Although it is identified early on as an encyclopedia (p.9), it will likely be better recognized as a hybrid. That is, in addition to containing features familiar to encyclopedias, such as a list of all federal judges and the presidents who appointed them, the core of the book contains five substantive chapters. These chapters are organized topically and range from a discussion of the roles of the federal courts to a treatment of the interaction of the federal courts with the states. As such, I believe the book will likely find its target audience with libraries and as a reference manual for professors teaching judicial process courses. (The book’s price is prone to make it unsuitable for undergraduate course adoption).

Beyond the book’s somewhat unique organizational style, the volume’s primary contribution lies in its historical perspective. While most texts and encyclopedias approach the federal judicial process either by focusing on particular courts (overwhelmingly the Supreme Court) or promoting a specific perspective (e.g., judges as neutral arbiters of the law, judges as policy makers), this book’s most attractive feature is the historical approach utilized by the authors to explain the federal judicial system. All of the contributors are historians and use their training to provide excellent longitudinal treatments of their subject area. In this sense, the book marks an important contribution to our understanding of the federal judiciary from a historical perspective. That is, rather than focusing solely on the contemporary federal court system, the authors go to great lengths to illustrate the significance of understanding the American legal system in a historical context. [*902]

The five substantive chapters present a historical perspective on various roles and functions of the federal courts. Chapter 2, authored by Charles Zelden, discusses the origins and organization of the federal court system and presents a thorough overview of the changing workloads of the federal courts. (Chapter 1 is an introduction by Zelden). Chapter 3, by Timothy Dixon, covers the evolving structure and procedures of the federal courts. Dixon canvasses a wide range of topics, including both Article I and Article III courts and the differences between civil and criminal law. Chapter 4, written by Roberta Sue Alexander, focuses on judges and other actors in the federal court system, including a discussion of judicial selection over time. From my perspective, this is the most illuminating chapter in the book. Alexander provides an excellent treatment of the determinants of judicial selection and how various factors related to presidential appointments have evolved over time, such as the waning importance of kinship and instrumental friendship. Chapter 5, authored by Thomas Mackey, covers the role of judges as policy makers, including the politics of Supreme Court appointment. To do this, Mackey provides an overview of seminal Supreme Court cases related to judicial review, incorporation, and civil rights and liberties. The final chapter, by Lester Lindley, focuses on the relationship between the federal courts and the other branches of government and the states. Here the author provides a relatively in-depth treatment of many of the major Supreme Court cases related to federalism, illustrating how the Court has significantly shifted over time with respect to its position on the proper balance between the power of the states vis-à-vis the federal government.

In addition to these five substantive chapters, the book contains a host of reference materials. The volume begins with a 27-page legislative history of the federal courts, broken down by court level, providing a timeline of the major congressional legislation relating to federal court creation. Following the substantive chapters, the book contains a 14-page glossary of concepts, laws, and actors. This is succeeded by a list of all federal court judges, organized by the presidents who nominated them, the courts on which they served, and their race, gender, and ethnicity. Next, the volume contains a section that reprints notable documents related to the federal judiciary, including portions of the Constitution, major pieces of legislation, and landmark decisions of the Supreme Court. The book closes with an annotated bibliography, briefly discussing the scholarly publications on which the substantive chapters are based.

While the book represents an excellent example of the importance of viewing the federal judiciary in a historical context, there are two areas in which I believe it could have been improved. First, while Alexander’s chapter on the judicial selection process is insightful, the use of figures would have made it more readable. Alexander delves into very specific details about various characteristics of federal judges that lend themselves to presentation in a graphical format. For example, page 103 reads, in part, “During the Taylor-Fillmore Administration, where all the appointees were Whigs, only 25 percent had elite backgrounds while another 37.5 percent came from well-to-do families. Twenty-five [*903] percent came from humble origins compared with 23.5 percent of Jackson appointees.” Although this short excerpt is not difficult to read, it is somewhat more challenging to digest the 10 or so pages that report similar statistics only in the text. Second, there are a few typographical errors and outdated figures that detract from the volume’s quality. For example, “Birkby” is spelled “Birkly” throughout the text. In addition, the book reports that “Of about 2,000 to 3,000 cases the [Supreme] Court considers each year, the justices grant review in about 160 to 200” (p.33). These figures are presented as representing contemporary numbers related to case selection, but do not correctly reflect the fact that the modern Supreme Court handles about 8,000 certiorari petitions per year, disposing of less than 100 cases on the merits each term.

Despite these shortcomings, this book represents an important entry into the market for textbooks and reference volumes on the federal judicial system. THE JUDICIAL BRANCH OF FEDERAL GOVERNMENT reminds of us of the significance of viewing courts with a careful eye toward their historical development. Moreover, by reprinting significant pieces of legislation, landmark Supreme Court cases, and providing a list of all federal court judges, the book is useful in that it makes all of this information accessible in a single volume (although much of this information is available on the internet). In this sense, it will be particularly useful for instructors teaching courses on federal judicial process as a supplement to their regular textbook(s).

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Paul M. Collins, Jr.