The Last Justice, set for publication on Feb. 7, is not your typical book about the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s a thriller novel, for one thing. By the second page, six justices are shot dead on the bench and the solicitor general is wounded.
“Solicitor General Jefferson McKenna fell forward onto a screaming woman, smearing her crisp blue blazer with his blood,” is the opening sentence. “The government’s top lawyer, bleeding from the shoulder and chest, lay helpless on the floor of the United States Supreme Court, watching the chaos unfold.”
And then there’s the author, Anthony Franze. He’s not the usual mystery writer who randomly sets his story in the Supreme Court for the novelty of it, proceeding to get the number of justices wrong or otherwise defacing the institution in print.
Franze, 41, is a member of Arnold & Porter’s Supreme Court and appellate practice, and much of his day job involves writing to the Court, not about it. In spite of its dark opening and an affair between two justices, Franze’s page-turner is downright respectful of the Court, scrupulously accurate in its details about the institution’s inner working. In a surprising way, the book reflects Franze’s admiration for the Court. “It was an opportunity to write about something I love,” he said in an interview.
Just last week, Franze celebrated the real Supreme Court’s decision in Maples v. Thomas, reviving the appeal of an Alabama death row inmate. Franze and Lisa Blatt, head of the firm’s Supreme Court practice, wrote a powerful brief in the case for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and others. And although Franze would not say so, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s majority opinion seemed to draw inspiration from his brief, especially in its critique of the Alabama indigent defense system.
“Anytime you work on a case like that, a death penalty case, and you have that outcome, it puts writing a legal thriller into perspective,” Franze said.
Franze has been happily shuttling between appellate briefs and escapist fiction for nearly a dozen years. He dabbled in fiction as a youth, and concocted the first two pages of what is now The Last Justice years ago. In 2000, he went to work at Arnold & Porter, where he found encouragement to pursue his creative writing. “There are a lot of accomplished people here, and I was amazed at what my colleagues do outside work,” he said.
Soon, he grew to love business travel, which gave him hours to write uninterrupted on a plane or train. But writing the novel did not begin in earnest until he and his wife, Tracy, had children, wreaking havoc on normal sleep patterns. “Most of the book was written between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.,” he said.
Unassuming and soft-spoken, Franze did not make a big deal about writing a book about the Court. “I heard he was writing a book, but had no clue what it was about,” Blatt said. “It’s a great read, albeit somewhat outlandish. Anthony has a very funny sense of humor, and he loves the Court.”
Franze researched his subject extensively, interviewing former clerks and consulting books ranging from Stern & Gressman’s encyclopedic Supreme Court Practice to recent nonfiction Court books by Jeffrey Toobin, Jan Crawford, Edward Lazarus and Jeffrey Rosen.
The research shows in the numerous allusions to Court history and practices that Franze wove into the book without slowing it down.
“I may assign it to my students in the Supreme Court seminar,” laughs Sheila Scheuerman, a former colleague of Franze’s at Arnold & Porter who now teaches at the Charleston School of Law. Franze has sent drafts of the book to her over the years for critiquing. “It’s a fun beach read that also has a lot of good legal information in it.”
The Last Justice has to be the only legal thriller that explains the Supreme Court’s cert pool — the arrangement whereby incoming certiorari petitions are divvied up among law clerks for summarizing and recommendation, to avoid duplication. He even has the fictional acting chief justice disapproving when clerks trade petitions around — something the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist also discouraged.
The book also refers, without naming him, to Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. The assassin who killed the six justices in Franze’s book entered the Court through its massive bronze front doors. In 2010 Roberts said the doors could no longer be used as an entrance, for security reasons, but the book’s chief justice reopened them.
And when the president in Franze’s book seeks to speed the confirmation of six justices at once by appointing three Democrats and three Republicans, Franze harkens back to the days of George Washington, who appointed three northerners and three southerners to the Court in the interest of political harmony.
Franze thinks his is the only work of Supreme Court fiction that features the solicitor general as a main character.
“It’s one of the great jobs of Washington, but outside of Washington, not many people know what it is.” Most people don’t know much about the Supreme Court, either, which is why Franze insisted on accuracy in describing it. “I wanted to take readers into this fascinating world,” Franze said. “It’s not a history book, but you get little pieces of history.”
Franze found a publisher — Sterling & Ross — after numerous rejections that were “too depressing to count,” he said. He has no ambition to leave the practice of law like John Grisham did when his The Firm started selling like hotcakes.”I’m a career Arnold & Porter guy,” he said.
But Franze plans to keep writing after hours, and is already at work with co-authors on another Supreme Court book — this one a more empirical, nonfiction look at the Court, with no assassinations or scandal. But to Franze, it poses the same challenges and satisfaction as fiction or brief writing: “You always have to figure out how to say as much as you can in as little space as you can.”
Contact Tony Mauro at firstname.lastname@example.org.