Photo: Michael A. Scarcella/ALM

With the U.S. Supreme Court about to wrap up the current term’s work, court aficionados—and the justices—are probably eyeing the exit door and packing their bags for vacation.

You’ll want to pack (or download) some books along with everything else. Justices fan out across the world and will have plenty of time to read on the plane. Exhausted advocates need to read something besides amicus briefs.

There hasn’t been a flood of nonfiction Supreme Court books so far this year. So why not indulge in Supreme Court fiction, where justices have lives, including sex lives, and get caught up in all kinds of mayhem? In between the heart-pounding action, you might find some useful insights about the court.

This summer’s high-quality crop of court thrillers is mainly by authors knowledgeable about their subject. Anthony Franze is an appellate counsel at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer who has two successful court thrillers under his belt. Peter Irons is a renowned court scholar who, 25 years ago, annoyed the court by marketing its oral argument audiotapes. Tom Rosenstiel is a former reporter in Washington who has worked to improve the journalism profession. Anton Piatigorsky is a playwright and short story writer.

With all the dramatic recent twists and turns at the Supreme Court, fiction is getting closer and closer to real life. At a recent book event Rosenstiel, whose novel goes behind the scenes of a Supreme Court confirmation, said, “All these things I made up, are happening.” Here are brief summaries of the books and quotes from each about the court:

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The Center Seat, by Peter Irons: A conservative justice and a liberal law clerk grapple with a high-profile death-penalty case, amid turmoil on the court and the death of the chief justice.

Quote from a justice contemplating a death-row case: “You know, we’re so focused here on the cases that get argued, and that we have to decide, there’s hardly any time to step back and look at the real world out there. I mean, it’s all paper up here, except for an hour in the argued cases to harass the lawyers with questions that are usually aimed at our colleagues.”


The Outsider, by Anthony Franze: A Supreme Court messenger who saved the day when the chief justice is mugged gets promoted to the position of law clerk, but soon becomes entangled in intrigue and treachery.

Quote by a current clerk briefing the new clerk: “All you need to know is that there are five key tasks of a clerk: pool memos, death penalty stays, bench memos, drafting opinions—and the most important task—whatever the hell the chief justice needs.” On slanting a cert memo to boost—or lessen—chances of granting cert, she adds: “If you slant a memo, the clerks will tell their justice, who will then complain to the chief, and, well, you know what happens next.”


Shining City, by Tom Rosenstiel: The sudden death of a justice triggers an intensely political confirmation process, and the hiring of a Washington “fixer” to vet the new nominee.

Quote from the president, musing about whom to nominate for the Supreme Court: “So what should I look for in a justice? The Founders said ignore political ideology … The problem is we’ve started to politicize the judiciary in a way we’ve never seen before. And it flows all the way down the system. Judges in lower courts, picked for their ideological purity, render partisan decisions and send them to the Supreme Court to be enshrined. This is the great invisible crisis of our country … It’s more corrosive than what’s happening in Congress. Those fools we can vote out. This does deeper and lasts for generations.”


Al-Tounsi, by Anton Piatigorsky: In the context of a landmark case about the rights of detainees, the author probes the flawed personalities and relationships of the nine justices and how that affects their legal reasoning.

Quote from a justice describing the court’s closed conferences where pending cases are discussed: “Sometimes conference is not so different from riding a horse. Same thing: reading moods and inflections, what’s going on underneath, and riding that out. I remember with [my horse] I’d always know when to get firm with him or slacken his reins … Even justices of the Supreme Court. You got to watch them for their breathing and gestures. The way they hold their ears.”


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