Arthur Hughes comes from the American Midwest to clerk for a year with the most famous Federal Court of Appeal Judge in America. Joining him for the year as clerks are Phil Jenkins and Melanie Wilkerson. I consider the three young lawyers the greatest strength of the book and will discuss them in another post.
Heald does well in portraying the busy life of young lawyers as clerks. They deal with a variety of cases. There are business, tax, environmental, civil rights and criminal cases. Each clerk is constantly reviewing pending cases and researching the law so they can prepare bench memos for their Judge on how he should vote to decide the cases.
It is an austere intellectual work life. They spend their days and some evenings reading and thinking and writing. At the appellate level there are no trials. There are hearings with oral arguments by lawyers. Most of the time the clerks are dealing with trial transcripts and other written records from lower courts.
The greatest tension and public attention involves the habeas applications of death row inmates seeking stays of execution. By the time the applications reach the Federal appellate level execution dates are often but days ahead.
With the Eleventh Circuit encompassing Georgia, Alabama and Florida there is a steady flow of habeas cases.
Arthur is assigned the habeas case of a notorious serial killer, Karl Gottlieb, who had won a previous application that his trial was flawed because there should have been a psychiatric examination of the “disturbed” Gottlieb. Rather than hold a new trial the state of Georgia had a psychologist review the trial transcripts. The psychologist never actually interviewed Gottlieb. It was no surprise the psychologist found Gottlieb competent to stand trial. Arthur must evaluate whether that post-trial examination and report satisfied the previous order of the Court.
Arthur works his way through the legal issues but has a harder time with the emotional issues of working on a death case. Everyone in the judicial system has a level of responsibility in whether the applicant lives or dies. As with Gottlieb almost all of the cases involve applicants who have clearly committed murder.
While Arthur delves into the Gottlieb case Melanie becomes obsessed with the mysterious death of a female law clerk, Carolyn Bastaigne, five years earlier. Bastaigne had fallen down a flight of marble stairs. Melanie proves to be a tenacious investigator.
While the clerks work I appreciated that Heald gave them genuine personal lives outside the courthouse.
Arriving without having arranged a residence Arthur receives a recommendation from the Judge’s secretary, Ms. Stillwater, to see Suzanne, a young widow in need of a boarder in her large southern home. Arthur is attracted by the home, the lovely Suzanne and her captivating 4 year old daughter, Maria. He takes a room and is soon involved in relationships with Suzanne and Maria.
It is no surprise that romance blooms between the handsome young lawyer and the slightly older beautiful Suzanne. What was striking is that Arthur and Maria, from their first meeting, are friends.
Too few mysteries involve families. Arthur and Maria play together, talk and enjoy each other’s company.
As a clerk’s position is for but a year there looms over the relationships what will happen with Arthur when the year is done. Job opportunities in Washington, D.C. beckon.
Arthur joins the local college choir. I was reminded of my younger son, Michael, who enjoyed being in the University of Calgary choir both as an undergrad and as a law student. I realized why Heald wrote so well of choirs when I read that he is a singer and his wife is a choir director.
While I did have a few issues with Courting Death and they will be raised in yet a third post on the book I enjoyed the book. I hope it was submitted for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. It is a worthy contender. Heald's skill in explaining legal issues reminds of a Harper Lee Prize winner, Paul Goldstein, who is also a professor of law.