PREVIEW AND CHAPTER ONE OF CHIEF JUSTICE: A SUPREME COURT INSIDER'S NOVEL

 

 

Whodunit is only the framework of Chief Justice: A Supreme Court Insider’s Novel. It is the story of life and work hidden from public view within the building of the Supreme Court of the United States.

 

The reader will live scores of private, often intimate events with the characters of the novel. Join the Justices in the Robing Room as they shake hands and march single file into the back of the Courtroom before each Court session, always in strict seniority order. Ride to the Court with the Chief Justice in his personal limousine from his home in suburban Virginia. Play basketball with the law clerks in the fourth floor gymnasium slyly named the highest court in the land. Attend an elegant evening reception in the opulent East Conference Room. Watch a Court session from the employees’ viewing area. Partake in a typical luncheon of baked fish, au gratin potatoes, and broccoli served on china plates embossed with the golden Court seal in the Justices’ private dining room. Enter the soundless solitude of the Justices’ private second floor library. Hear oaths administered by the Clerk of Court with the Bible in continuous use since 1808. Stand with the Court police officer as he catches robes flung at him by the Justices as they hustle out of the Courtroom after a session.

 

While the mystery is fictional, every event within the story is accurate. Even the characters’ names are found in Court history. The story begins before a Court session on Monday morning. Here is the first chapter.

 

 

 

The Chief Justice of the United States beamed. He surveyed his gleaming mahogany desk piled neatly with various work projects like a child mesmerized by an array of jars filled with assorted candy. M. J. Johns had cases to read, orders to sign, appointments to make, opinions to revise, letters to answer, speeches to draft. Many people thought this Chief lived to work. They were right.

An hour before the ten o’clock argument session of the Supreme Court would begin was not the time for heavy-duty opinion writing or editing. The letter pile! Johns plucked the top letter from the pile: an invitation to speak to a national convention of high school civics teachers. He pursed his lips, bobbed his head side to side twice in indecision, and slipped the invitation back to the bottom of the pile. The second and third letters were also speaking invitations. They also went to the bottom of the pile. Too bad Johns could not parcel out the invitations to his brethren, the eight Associate Justices, as he did the opinions. People wanted to hear–to see–the Chief Justice of the United States. The fourth began, "As chair of our speakers' committee . . .." Johns let out a short snort and flipped the letter back to his desk.

He threw himself up from the soft, oversized ebony swivel chair, and began to pace the room like an athlete waiting for the big game to start. The Chief rubbed his eyes rapidly to remove the lingering effects of another post-midnight work effort. In bed at one, back up at six-thirty. Day after day. Week after week. Year after year.

As he paced, Johns’ eyes flashed around his back office, his private working space, part of his chambers directly across the back hallway from the Courtroom. Covering one oak-shelved wall were the hundreds of volumes of United States Reports, decisions of the Supreme Court for more than 200 years. First as Associate Justice, and now for nine years as Chief Justice, M. J. Johns had contributed his share of those pages, he reflected. Critics had been kind, too. Lawyers often said that his writing was a model of clarity. He was no master of phrase like Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, but his opinions did not leave out important details either, as Holmes sometimes had done. On the similarly oak-shelved wall facing the desk was his official library. Legal philosophy. Legal history. Jurisprudence. Judicial administration. These were public books, an artifice for the consumption of infrequent visitors; hidden at home and on one shelf behind the legal philosophy volumes were the mysteries and cheap adventures–the pulpers, as he called them–he needed to relax. Behind the desk on both sides of the window was the usual Washington wall of diplomas, awards, prizes, autographed photos–even a caricature given him by his law clerks years ago. Next to his own caricature was the family photograph: his wife of sainted memory and their three children smiled broadly at him. He smiled back.

The man occupying the center chair of the Court was short, with the standard paunch for a man nearing 60 whose job required a great deal of sitting. A rim of plain gray hair surrounded a bald head. His facial features were quite ordinary, save his thick salt and pepper eyebrows, which were featured in the caricature. This Chief Justice lacked the piercing eyes of John Marshall, the imposing size of William Howard Taft, the spellbinding aura of Charles Evans Hughes, or the glorious hair of Warren Burger. Yet most people found Johns extraordinary. He was the Chief Justice of the United States, and he dressed the part, from his expensive hand-tailored suits to the French-cuffed shirts and gold cufflinks with the Court seal. He moved with the precision of his military training. Some visitors, charmed with his ready smile and courtly manner, even thought Johns almost handsome.

His eye turned to the small mirror on the back of the door. Was he ready for the Court session? He jerked off the half-moon reading glasses and flipped them onto the desk. LASIK eye surgery shortly after his nomination as Chief Justice meant Johns no longer needed to wear the coke-bottle glasses he had sported on the bench for five years as an Associate Justice, and he now looked more like a leader than a nerdy professor. He jutted his chin up and back and forth. No nicks or shaving blood. He grunted approval.

Johns forced himself out of his reverie as he spun back around, threw himself into the chair, gave the black button underneath the lip of his desk a sharp push, and reached for the stack of orders to be signed. The first one was a routine hiring approval for three new laborers in the building. He plucked a government-issue pen from his desk drawer and signed the form. Johns glanced up from the second order just long enough to confirm an elderly, heavy-set black man was standing in the doorway. Every Justice was allowed a messenger. Some were used as a driver, others as a bodyguard, others as a valet. Ben Nathan had been with Johns for all of his fourteen years on the Court.

Johns said, "Ben, you have to lose some weight."

"Not until you do first, Chief," the messenger rumbled his standard response to the standard greeting.

"Ben, would you please make me a cup of tea?"

"Certainly, Chief." Nathan looped around the desk and hustled into the kitchenette serving the back office. He performed this common task almost noiselessly.

Johns rushed through the rest of the orders. What next? He picked up the first typed draft of the speech he had dictated yesterday. Yes, the dictation had gone well. Few words needed to be changed. A deletion here. A new phrase there. As Johns concentrated on the second page of the speech, he jerked erect with a start as he noticed Sheryl Minton standing beside his desk.

"I'm sorry, sir, but I did knock," his secretary said in a voice that still carried the lilt of her native Virginia. Despite the words, she spoke without a hint of apology. Minton was probably the only person in the world who would have dared enter the back office without being bidden. For a forty something with a sedentary job, she moved in silent grace. With her black hair pulled tightly into a bun, classic features, bright brown eyes, no-nonsense demeanor, and impeccable dress, Minton was formidable in her own right. Her position as lead secretary to the Chief Justice meant she held the keys to the kingdom; she was a person to be reckoned with throughout the building, and she knew it. Minton had been a parting gift to Johns from his predecessor as Chief Justice. As advertised she could be crusty and strong-willed. She was also efficient and accurate. Most importantly, she was loyal and could keep her mouth shut. Most people around the building referred to her as the Dragon Lady, and she on occasion repeated the nickname herself. As the Chief’s gatekeeper, she worked nearly as many hours as he did, so the Dragon Lady had years earlier given up on any thought of remarrying or children. The choice was a home life or a Court life, and the choice had been easy.

"Sorry for what?" Johns tried to cover his surprise. "What is it?"

"Sorry to disturb you before the Court session, sir," Minton said, but David needs to see you before you go on the bench."

"Oh, all right. What is it this—"

Johns’ eye caught motion behind his secretary as David Brewer emerged from the shadow of the hallway and raced into the back office through the door Minton had left open. The Chief had hired Brewer for the position of Executive Assistant primarily because he admired the way Brewer had risen from his beginnings, the first one in his family to finish college, and then selling insurance to put himself through night law school. Brewer was bright, of course, but many others were brighter; he just flat outworked everyone else. His capacity for long hours so impressed the district judge Brewer had clerked for that she had recommended the young man with the unusual background to her friend the Chief Justice. Now Brewer was working at the Supreme Court, the decision to hire him sealed when the Chief discovered he was shorter than himself.

As Executive Assistant, Brewer's job was to handle the paper flow of the opinions through the Chief Justice's chambers and to `ride herd on Johns’ four other law clerks. He did a top-notch job too, allowing Johns to overlook some shortcomings that had not been apparent when he came to work at the Court. Brewer’s features were ordinary. Nondescript, really. The lesser problem was that Brewer didn’t seem to take care of himself. As usual, his rich brown hair needed a brushing or at least a quick comb through it. His shirt appeared to contain part of yesterday’s dinner. And his face showed an overnight stubble. Since he may actually have worked overnight, Johns let it pass. What had really started to rankle was that Brewer was always in too much of a hurry, a 45 record playing at 78. His Executive Assistant was by the day starting to make the Chief nervous, which was hard to do to a man who moved fast himself.

"What is it, David?"

"Two emergency petitions, Chief. One is a death case with the execution set for tomorrow morning. We discussed both yesterday, and you wanted to deny review. I also brought the bench memos for you to re-read before today's arguments. The memo for the first case has some tough questions you might want to ask the attorney for the petitioner."

As Johns took the papers from Brewer, Minton saw her opportunity and said, "You know where to find me." She ignored the exasperated grunt and closed the door behind her.

The Chief pulled his gold fountain pen from his monogrammed shirt pocket. He skimmed the petition and order, then signed at the bottom in his trademark jet black ink. He gave the same quick treatment to the other petition.

As he read, Johns muttered, "Sorry I can't have Ben make some tea for you too, David. No time before the Court session."

"No time. That's all right, Chief. I have things to do anyway." Brewer shifted from one foot to the other almost with each word.

"Anything else?" Johns voice had become brusque. He was already scanning the first bench memorandum.

Brewer's eyebrows raised slightly as he recognized the dismissal. "That's it, Chief," the Executive Assistant said as he scurried out the door with the signed orders.

Johns reached for the cup of tea Nathan had placed on the left corner of the desk before he had slipped out of the room. Apple and cinnamon. Herbal tea. Johns looked from the bench memo to the teacup and wrinkled his nose. Ben was always trying to protect him from too much caffeine during a Court session. He took a small sip and tried to concentrate again on the memo.

After he’d read only a half-page, the telephone buzzed. Johns slapped the memo onto his desk, spun around, and grabbed for the receiver.

"What?"

"I forgot to remind you of your reception at the Smithsonian tonight at six-thirty, sir," said Minton. "You are scheduled to leave from the underground garage in your limousine at 6:15."

"I remember," he snapped, "and am too busy to talk now." With a glance at the clock, he added, "No more calls–unless it's the President or the Pope." Years before the no calls instruction had included the Speaker of the House, but after the Speaker had been put through one day, Johns had amended his saying.

The Chief turned back to the desk and retrieved the bench memo just as a knock echoed through the heavy oak door to his right. Hidden camera, he thought once again as he shook his head slowly. There must be a hidden camera in the office. People always seemed to know when he tried to concentrate on something.

"Come in."

Jim Wilson filled the door frame as he ambled into the back office. "Sheryl said I could duck in for a minute, Chief," he said. Johns gave his Counselor a mock salute as Wilson continued "After you left the three of us at the breakfast table upstairs, I did as you suggested and showed the senator and his staffer around the building for a half hour. I think they enjoyed it. But they wanted to talk about the coming Presidential election, not about the business of the courts."

Wilson sat with a thud in a mahogany arm chair by the desk. Once his 250 pounds distributed over a six-and-one-half foot frame were directed toward a chair, the motion usually ended with a thud. From teenage years on, no one had ever described James Wilson as graceful. His hand casually brushed a few glistening droplets of sweat from his large forehead that was winning the battle with his receding blond hairline. He pulled at an inch-too-short sleeve of his off-the-rack shirt as he glanced upward to see if the Chief noticed. Johns was still looking at the bench memo. Wilson spoke deliberately, as if measuring each word for exact meaning before he uttered it. Wilson's manner of speech and perpetually hooded eyes made some people think him a little slow. He liked to cultivate that impression sometimes, if it served his purposes, but never with the Chief. The two men facing each other were opposites physically, but they thought on the same wavelength.

Johns slashed the bold letters BS across one of the paragraphs of the memo as he exploded a sharp breath from his lips and looked up. "Jim, you've been my Counselor for nearly four years now. You know Congress. We've worked with the senator since he became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee a year ago. Have we made any progress at all with the SOB? Has he done anything for the courts? Did we do any good with him at breakfast this morning?"

"I don't think so, Chief. He’s not buying your idea the country needs more district judges. Of course, we don't have much to offer him. A personal tour of the Court building isn't worth that much in terms of horse-trading."

"Of course I know that," Johns clipped out the words, "but you and I gave them my A-1 breakfast treatment for over an hour upstairs this morning. And the country needs those additional judges."

He swung his chair around and snatched the telephone from the table behind him. "Maybe the Attorney General will have some influence," Johns murmured over his shoulder. "That was bad luck for the judiciary when the Senate changed hands." The Chief stabbed a button on the telephone, a few seconds later whispered an inaudible expletive, stabbed a different button, and barked, "Sheryl, get me the Attorney General." Johns drummed his fingertips on the table as he waited for the call to go through.

"There is something else, Chief," said Wilson.

"Well?"

"Chief, I hesitate because this may not be a good time for you, but have you given any more thought to allowing the Washington Post to interview you for your tenth anniversary as Chief Justice?"

"Er, uh, put them off for a few days." Johns reached for the letter pile with his free hand.

"We have put them off several times, Chief. You said I could promise an answer today, and they want to hold me to it."

Johns shifted in this chair and his expression darkened. "What else?" he rasped. "If it's not Brewer, it's Minton. If it's not Minton, it's you. Sometimes I feel I'm the eye in the center of a hurricane here."

"Yes, but you wouldn't have it any other way, Chief," said the big man with a wink, earning himself a sharp look. Wilson seemed unsure whether to fall off the balance toward deference or demand. Finally he added "Just give me the word yes or no, if you can now."

"Those bastards," shot back the Chief Justice, "the press would get into the bathtub with you if they could."

Wilson grinned with relief at one of Johns' favorite sayings. He waited.

"Tell them I'll try, but I want the usual prior approval of questions–"

The buzzer on the telephone stopped him. "Yes," Johns exploded into the receiver.

"The Attorney General is unavailable, but will return your call as soon as possible." Minton had automatically shifted to her well-practiced calming tone. "May I remind you that you agreed to say hello to two of your former law clerks this morning? They’re waiting in the Conference Room for you. And, sir, the Clerk of the Court hopes to see you before the session."

Johns slammed the telephone into the cradle and spun back to his desk. He opened his mouth to speak and was momentarily disoriented to find he was alone. Then he heard the door click shut behind Wilson. A small smile of satisfaction curled his lips. As he started reading the first bench memo again, Johns took a swallow of his tea. It was cold.