How do you tell the story of an institution as enigmatic as the United States Supreme Court? On Sunday evening, Ruth Marcus, Adam Cohen and Richard Lazarus, three Harvard Law School graduates and authors of recent nonfiction works about the high court, set out to answer this question.

Moderated by reporter Dahlia Lithwick, the panel of authors talked all things Supreme Court, from its structure to its most recent rulings, in a debate-style panel as part of the latest event in the 2020 Martha’s Vineyard Author Series.

Opening the event with a bang, Ms. Lithwick posed the panelists with a polarizing question that set the tone for the rest of the discussion—whether they see the court as a political entity or purely a legal one.

For Mr. Cohen, whose new book Supreme Inequality examines the court’s role in contributing to economic inequality in America, writing about the court means writing strictly about politics.

“When you look at the decisions of the last 50 years, in the case of my book, they are doing very political things,” he said. “They are turning against poor people, they are turning against voters and making it harder for people to vote, they’re turning against unions. [Secrecy] serves the interest of pretending that these decisions are not political that they’re legal, and that’s really dangerous.”

Mr. Lazarus, author of Rule of Five and professor of environmental law at Harvard, disagreed. Drawing on his time representing environmental groups and governments in 40 Supreme Court cases, Mr. Lazarus said that to him, the court is a legal institution, stationed above politics.

“When you have all the top political commentators, left and right, and both of them want to propel just the story [of a political court] it’s very hard for a second story to ever have any value to people,” said Mr. Lazarus.

Ms. Marcus, author of Supreme Ambition and a syndicated columnist at the Washington Post, suggested that beyond politics, the court is concerned with legitimacy.

“The court has this kind of internal doesn’t like to get too far out of balance with public opinion,” she said, noting the court’s record-high approval rating this term as well as its recent ruling in favor of LGBTQ rights. “To me, the explanation may include partisanship but it more includes the need that the Chief Justice feels to buttress the legitimacy of this institution against these attacks that come to it from both sides.”

Continuing in a rapid-fire debate format, the conversation turned next to questions about the court’s conservative makeup and the surprisingly progressive rulings of its latest term.

Mr. Cohen suggested that though the conservative court did not overturn crucial past rulings like Roe V. Wade as some expected, the “conservative take-over,” as he called it, was not over.

“I would say let’s look at this term as being an election year; Roberts has a lot of concerns about getting Trump re-elected,” he said. “The Republicans claim a blood sport to control this court. The Democrats are not doing that and they need to start doing that.”

Mr. Lazarus on the other hand, stressed the importance that good lawyers with strong arguments play in the court’s rulings. But Ms. Marcus pushed back, citing the limits of lawyering under the current President.

Keeping up a brisk pace, the scholars touched on a wide range of topics posed by viewers, like the impact of the Presidency on the court and whether or not the court should adopt structural reforms, like adding additional justices or instating term limits.

Near the end of the discussion, Ms. Lithwick asked the panelists about the court’s response to the current surge of racial justice activism. All three panelists agreed that the court would likely not side with public opinion on the issue.

“I don’t think the fifth vote is here right now,” said Mr. Lazarus. “This is a court which does have a deep five-justice majority, and which is very harsh in the criminal justice context. The short answer is, I don’t think enough has happened yet.”

At the close of the event, Ms. Lithwick asked the panelists what they were most hopeful for in the court’s future.

“That is such a hard question for me because I’m so unrelentingly pessimistic,” said Mr. Cohen with a laugh. “But I do believe that in life, pendulums do go back and forth. If Biden were to win and if there were to be eight years of a Democratic president, I think that would be enough time for the court to change.”

As the audience shared their virtual applause, Mr. Lazarus shared one final thought.

“From a purely parochial perspective as a professor at the Harvard Law School, I also find it hopeful that myself, Ruth and Adam all graduated from Harvard Law School,” he said with a smile.

The final event in the 2020 Martha's Vineyard Author Series is Thursday, August 13 in a discussion entitled The Black Lives Matter Movement and the Fight for Racial Justice. The event begins at 7:30. Visit