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“Courthouse at Indian Creek” by Frederick Quinn Seven Locks Press; 290 pages Frederick Quinn has seen crumbling Eastern European courthouses where justice is blind in part because there are no light bulbs. He has visited grand court buildings in France that all but dwarf the litigants. But the site that captured him as a prime example of the justice system at work is in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., is not a hub for mob cases or high-tech disputes or bet-the-company corporate showdowns, but it is nonetheless a fascinating place: the legal crossroads for an increasingly diverse and sophisticated corner of the country. That is Quinn’s gentle argument, and the career foreign service officer and academic makes it convincingly in “Courthouse at Indian Creek.” The title promises more of a Western-style shootout than what it delivers: a sober, affectionate and detailed snapshot of the Greenbelt court in its first five years. The book ably serves its purposes. It is a primer on the federal court system, complete with strikingly deep profiles of the members of the Greenbelt bench. It also traces the turbulence in Prince George’s County’s recent racial and political history: It follows the careers of court officers, the thorny litigation over the county’s public school system and the famous civil rights case stemming from black Secret Service officers’ unhappy visit to a Denny’s outside Annapolis, Md., in 1993. DRAMA FOR A SMALL CROWD The book is a reminder that virtually every day, in virtually every courthouse, an important and often entertaining drama is playing out, admission-free, to a small crowd. All of which is not to say that the book is perfect. Rigidly formatted into a block of litigation tales followed by a block of personality profiles, “Courthouse at Indian Creek” doesn’t always put the picture in proper focus. For example, readers encounter Greenbelt’s three district court judges — Peter Messitte, Deborah Chasanow and Alexander Williams Jr. — several times before finding out much of anything about them. It would have been helpful in the first half of the book to know the things that surface in the second half: Williams’ background in civil rights and Prince George’s politics, Chasanow’s personal connections and experience in the criminal division of the Office of the Maryland Attorney General, and Messitte’s friendly character and curious r�sum�, including a stint as a law professor in Brazil and another as a solo practitioner in Chevy Chase, Md. No one at the court comes in for any criticism. It seems that issue has essentially been ruled beyond the scope of the book. But that does not diminish the book’s strengths. Chief among those are the cases Quinn chose to profile and the access he had to the court’s movers and shakers. Some of the cases in Greenbelt between 1994 and 1999 truly were legal landmarks. Quinn chronicles the fascinating case against Paladin Enterprises, a publisher of helpful how-to books such as “Be Your Own Undertaker: How to Dispose of a Dead Body” and “Sneaking It Through: Smuggling Made Easier.” The Paladin case stemmed from a jaw-dropping triple murder, where a man hired a killer to shoot his wife, his quadriplegic son and a nurse. The killer quite plainly followed the pointers in Paladin’s “Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors,” and it did not prove difficult to find him or his employer. What did prove difficult was a civil suit against the book’s publisher. After a high-profile First Amendment dispute, the case eventually settled. POLITICS AND PRIORITIES Quinn’s depiction of the Prince George’s school class action highlights Messitte’s exceptional settlement skills and offers a guide to politics and priorities in Prince George’s County over the last 30 years. The chapter on the Denny’s class action is a perfect guide to the way discrimination cases work and how different forces — legal, financial, political and social — help shape the results. In an interview, Quinn says that one of the things that captivated him about Greenbelt is that it is not (yet) a hoary old creature that just keeps rolling along on its own momentum. At the time he started his research, Quinn notes, “this courthouse was five years old. You literally had — coming out of the swamp by the Beltway, in a place where Indians had left their arrowheads — a significant new legal institution.” He continues: “There are lots of books on the technical aspects of court procedure, evidence, and that sort of thing, and there are a fair number of books on individual cases. But I could not think of a book that answered the basic question: What goes on in a federal courthouse?” Now we know.

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