Murder Comes to SCOTUS




YESTERDAY WAS the first Monday in October — the official start of the US Supreme Court’s new term — so LARB thought it would be fitting to talk to an author who’s made a living plumbing the depths of our nation’s highest court.

Anthony Franze is a Supreme Court litigator, a frequent media commentator on the high court, and an author of thrillers set in the insular world of the justices, their law clerks, and the elite lawyers who regularly appear in the venerated chamber of 1 First Street. His third novel, The Outsider, is another love note to the Supreme Court, but this time written not from the perspective of the high court’s elite but instead from the point of view of wannabe law clerk whose dream is to be welcomed into the Supreme Court family.

I recently spoke to Franze by phone and email about his latest novel, life as a lawyer-author, and why he keeps killing members of the Supreme Court community in his novels.

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DON FRANZEN: The Outsider, like your other novels, is set in the Supreme Court. I never knew there were so many murders at SCOTUS.

ANTHONY FRANZE: Ha! There’s a reason that you didn’t know that. I guess I thought the dead bodies would help add some drama to the legal arcana that makes up so much of the high court’s docket.

It’s almost like the Rampart Police Division in Los Angeles. Anyway … The Outsider involves not just a murder but serial murders and the misadventures of a Supreme Court law clerk. Grayson Hernandez isn’t like the usual well-heeled Ivy Leaguers who serve as the justices’ apprentices, so please tell us a little about him. 

Gray grew up in a rough part of DC, and scrapped his way out of the District’s underfunded public school system into law school. When he graduated, there were no law jobs available, so he took a position as a messenger, but not at your usual workplace — the job is at the US Supreme Court.

After a long shift one night, he intervenes on a violent mugging in the Court’s garage, only realizing later that the victim he’d saved was the Chief Justice of the United States. The chief takes an interest in Gray, and offers him a job as a law clerk, one of the most sought after legal jobs in the country. Things take off from there.

Now he’s inside, but also on the outside. Maybe we could talk a minute about one of the themes in your book: an outsider thrust into the insider Supreme Court world.

I’m glad you asked. The Supreme Court community is insular, for sure. Beyond the necessary secrecy of the justices’ decision-making process, Supreme Court work has become a specialized practice in recent years, and is sometimes criticized as too clubby. I actually think that it’s really no different from any other legal specialty where lawyers know the ins and outs of a given field.

In the story, Gray is kind of seduced by it all. The new friends, the perks, the prestige. But just as Gray begins to settle in to his new life, an FBI agent approaches him with unsettling news. The Feds think there’s a killer connected to the Supreme Court. They want Gray to be their eyes and ears inside 1 First Street — to help catch a killer who seems obsessed with the court.

The book is about friendship and family, and explores being an outsider — the perils of forgetting where you came from — but at its core it’s really a murder mystery.

Gray is very different from the main character in your last novel, The Advocate’s Daughter. Sean Serrat who, like you, is a Supreme Court lawyer at the top of his career starts off with a seemingly perfect life and family but then has his world crash in when his daughter is murdered. Both Sean and Gray get into a lot of trouble — they get mugged, they get beaten up, they get kidnapped, all sorts of things happen to them. I was going to ask you, is this autobiographical?

If only my life was so exciting! Though, there are parts in my novels that are autobiographical, but not the fun parts you mention. In The Advocate’s Daughter, the main character is smarter and more accomplished than me, but otherwise, we are both Big Law appellate lawyers, both the same age and married with three children, and both live in the same neighborhood. So it was only natural that I drew from my own life in telling the story. But with The Outsider, I wanted to challenge myself to write about somebody unlike me, somebody younger, somebody who took a different path.

Since you’re a practitioner in the Supreme Court world, I wanted to talk about how you create your characters. I found it interesting that you create fictional Supreme Court justices, but some seem to be amalgams of real justices living and dead. What’s your process for coming up with these characters?

That’s a great question. I don’t have a perfect answer, because most of my characters just show up on the page and then take on lives of their own.

What I can say is that I tend to borrow funny or interesting stories about real justices and sometimes weave them into my novels. For instance, Georgetown’s Supreme Court Institute has this great moot court program where they provide practice argument sessions to lawyers who have cases before the Supreme Court, and I periodically serve as a moot judge. At the end of every term, the Institute has an event, a party, to thank the moot judges, and sometimes Supreme Court justices will attend. In both The Advocate’s Daughter and The Outsider, I have scenes that were inspired by things that happened at these events. In Advocate, I include a scene where opera singers serenade a justice honored at the party, which actually happened to Justice Ginsburg. And in The Outsider, I have an old friend of one of my fictitious justices give a speech recounting a humorous anecdote about the justice when they were young lawyers. That was inspired by a real speech someone gave during a tribute to Justice Alito. It’s not that I base my fake justices on the real ones, but rather, I sometimes use real life to try to give depth to my characters by revealing the human side of these interesting, accomplished people.

Sounds like the names were changed to protect the innocent!

There’s a little of that. But I try to disclose whenever I borrow from real life. At the end of each of my books there is an author’s note where I separate fact from fiction. Some readers have told me it’s one of their favorite parts of my books.

How about your fictional cases? In The Outsider, you reference some real cases actually decided by the Supreme Court but then you also make up some cases. What’s your process there?

Without any spoilers, in The Outsider, a killer is obsessed with the Supreme Court and its historic cases, a fact that helps Gray uncover who is behind a string of murders. For cases that are key to the plot, I used real Supreme Court opinions, many of which are regarded as some of the worst Supreme Court cases in history.

But to try to give life to a law clerk’s work, I also had Gray and his co-clerks grapple with fictitious cases. For those, I tried to cover legal issues that I think are in the pipeline for the high court to consider someday.

I am impressed that you are able to get a book a year out at the pace you are going now. How do you fit this into your schedule as a full-time practicing lawyer?

I’m pretty disciplined with my time. Practicing law (and having three children) is good training for that. And after several books, I have a good system down now. I write late at night, three to four nights a week if I can manage it. I don’t wait for “inspiration,” I just get words on the page. I think that’s the secret to finishing a novel. Then I edit on the subway to and from my law office in downtown DC. I’m the guy who jumps up suddenly because he’s missed his stop.

That said, because of the demands of my practice, I’m trying to move to a book every two years or so. There’s only so many hours in the day and all that …

So that’s the secret. I’m always fascinated by the different ways lawyers make it work. I’ve interviewed some who write from 7:00 to 11:00 in the morning like clockwork, to some who write when inspiration strikes, and now the night-owl writer with you.

Okay, last question: What’s next for you?

I’m working on a domestic thriller about a prominent Washingtonian who’s accused of killing not one, but two, of his wives. It should hit bookstores in late 2018 or early 2019. Until then, I’ll be pecking away on my computer late at night and bumping into people on the subway.

Thank you, Anthony, for this engaging conversation and for giving us these terrific books. I look forward to your next thriller. I’m just sorry I may have to wait longer than I’d like.

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Don Franzen is an entertainment lawyer based in Beverly Hills. He is also an adjunct professor at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music teaching on the law and the music industry and the Legal Affairs editor for LARB.


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