Why the Supreme Court Makes a Fantastic Setting for a Novel
I’m often asked what the lure is about setting my novels in Supreme Court of the United States. The question is a surprising one because, to me, SCOTUS offers all the intrigue and drama a writer could want. This week alone a Senate battle is looming over the president’s nominee for the high court. And just a few blocks away at One First Street the Justices are sparring with lawyers arguing some of the weightiest legal questions of the day. But mostly, it’s what’s behind the newspaper headlines that draws me in.
Here are my top five reasons why the Supreme Court is a great backdrop for a novel:
- A Mysterious Small Town. Writers have long been unable to resist the allure of a small town. From Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again to Stephen King’s stories set in idyllic communities in Maine, small towns offer a rich—and confined—space to explore characters and conflict.
In The Outsider, law clerk Grayson Hernandez is taken aback by how much the Supreme Court feels very much like a small town. There’s the community leaders, the Nine, who head the third branch of government. But there’s also more than 400 citizens who spend their days sequestered in the “marble palace” behind the Capitol dome. The place has its own police force of a hundred strong. An impressive library is lit by chandeliers creating an atmosphere fit for a Hitchcock movie. Throughout the marble edifice there are works of art suitable for a gallery, eateries, a gift shop, and even a basketball court on the top floor of the building (the “real highest court in the land,” so goes the tired joke). And let’s not forget the secluded places where only the Justices may roam, like the conference room where they vote on cases in secret. But perhaps most important, the public knows very little about this world—surveys show that more Americans can identify TV’s Judge Judy than a sitting Justice—giving the high court an air of mystery.
- Intriguing Characters. The Supreme Court community has no shortage of interesting characters to draw on for fiction. The Justices are accomplished and interesting people who write books and memoirs, make cameos in operas, appear on talk shows, and have even been parodied on SNL. The Justices are assisted by more than 30 law clerks, a group the late Justice William O. Douglas called, “the lowest form of animal life.” And there’s the rest of the cast: the dogged press corps reporting on the Justices’ every move, the law professors quibbling over the institution and its decisions, and the lawyers whose intellect often is matched only by their egos.
- A Language All Its Own. In Southern fiction the drawl sets the scene. The Boston dialect brings to life Dennis Lehane’s novels. The Supreme Court, too, has its own language. As a character in my last book, The Advocate’s Daughter, observed: “Most of the Supreme Court community spoke in abbreviations and acronyms. It wasn’t the Office of the Solicitor General, it was OSG . . . . A case wasn’t dismissed as improvidently granted, it was DIG-ed. There was the GVR (granted, vacated, and remanded) and the CVSG (the court calling for the views of the solicitor general), and the list went on. An ivory tower version of annoying teenage text-speak.”
- History and Tradition. Steve Berry, Dan Brown, and Brad Meltzer have mastered using history to propel their stories. The Supreme Court provides many opportunities to do the same. The 13-ton bronze front doors are carved with scenes from the history of our law. The Great Hall is lined with busts of chief justices from the past. A massive bronze statue of Chief Justice John Marshall sits on the building’s ground floor. For more than 200 years advocates appearing for argument have been given feather quill pens. And, of course, there’s the Court’s historic decisions. In The Outsider, I tried to put it all to good use—Grayson must rely on his knowledge of Supreme Court precedent and history to catch a killer obsessed with the Court.
- High Stakes. What ratchets up the stakes of a thriller more than the most important legal questions of our times? The Justices have the final say on abortion, affirmative action, gun control, same-sex marriage, immigration, healthcare, privacy, and virtually every other issue that prompts citizens to rally in the streets. Throw in some murder and mischief, and the Supreme Court provides a backdrop of unparalleled stakes.
So why do I set my thrillers in the Supreme Court?
Why wouldn’t I?
Anthony Franze is a lawyer in the Appellate and Supreme Court practice of a prominent Washington, D.C. law firm, and author of critically-acclaimed novels set in the nation’s highest court, including THE ADVOCATE’S DAUGHTER, and his March 21, 2017 release, THE OUTSIDER (St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur).