John Grisham’s current bestselling novel, “The Appeal,” presents a timely, fictionalized warning that leaves the reader with a sense of urgency about preserving merit- based judicial selection systems like Colorado’s.
The book’s action centers around the Machiavellian machinations of billionaire chemical company titan Carl Trudeau. During his drawn-out appeal of a $43 million jury award to a widow whose family died of cancer, Trudeau secretly bankrolls a judicial election to ensure that the Mississippi Supreme Court reverses the decision in his favor. Grisham structures the plot on Mississippi’s actual judicial election system.
“The Appeal” garners its eerie believability by borrowing heavily from the culture we inhabit. Could a chemical company’s improperly disposed sludge endanger the water supply of an entire region? Grisham’s fictional jury thought so, after months of trial.
Grisham’s characters emerge within starkly rendered socioeconomic boundaries. Impoverished, trailer-dwelling folk comprise the toxic tort plaintiffs in a small Mississippi locale known colloquially as “Cancer County.” They are expendable, “ignorant people” to Trudeau and his world of mega-yachts, “superbly starved” trophy wives, private jets and $18 million throw-away art purchases.
Lawyers with varying abilities and differing ideas about moral fidelity occupy the middle ground. As the novel unfolds, they become the human trusses on the bridge over the toxic waters that link Carl Trudeau to the people of Cancer County.
At the time of the appeal, coincidentally, the fictitious Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Shelia McCarthy faces a statutorily mandated election. Known for her conscientious fidelity to the rule of law, she is beholden to none. Grisham deftly indicts judicial elections when he portrays Justice McCarthy’s commitment to fairness as the trait that makes her vulnerable to Trudeau’s henchmen. Ironically, because she approaches her work as a non-partisan, neutral arbiter, she’s an inviting target.
Grisham has said in interviews that he reads newspapers to get ideas for his novels. For this political novel, he borrows fabric directly from America’s patchwork of evangelical hype, corporate avarice and the naiveté of non-monied interests. All of the usual right-wing-conjured pet evils conspire toward collateral disastrous effect for Justice McCarthy. Trudeau invests unlimited resources to falsely present McCarthy as a “liberal, activist” judge who purportedly molly-coddles criminals, protects abortionists, refuses to enforce the death penalty and abets the ruination of America by allowing gay marriage. Trudeau’s operatives orchestrate months of precise media blitzes that easily enflame the rage of America’s gun-loving, death-penalty-adoring voting block.
The reader sympathizes with Justice McCarthy as she faces a series of indignities to keep the job that she’s competently performed for nine years. To fund her campaign she must turn to trial lawyers, who, in political parlance, constitute her “base.” This means she’s forced to engage in ex parte communications and “unseemly groveling for money” with people who have cases pending before her. During the campaign, when she is inaccurately characterized as “pro-plaintiff” in a mass mailing and mass e-mail blast, she responds by writing a letter to the voters providing the facts omitted by the disingenuous ads. A fabricated television commercial portrays her as a proponent of gay marriage, an issue she’s never adjudicated, and barely considered off the Bench. To her further consternation, her campaign manager begs her to manipulate the Court’s calendar to stall filing a controversial dissent. When her record is questioned with generalized, out-of-context misrepresentations on unspecified death penalty rulings, she calmly reminds voters that appellate courts must employ the utmost care in reviewing death penalty cases.
Throughout her ordeal, Justice McCarthy takes refuge in her dignity. But the reader quickly realizes that Justice McCarthy’s intelligence, honesty, civility, common decency and commitment to the rule of law will not triumph over heavily financed misrepresentations on hot-button issues.
In his closing “Author’s Note,” Grisham states that he borrowed parts of the plot from several actual cases. He affirms that none of the actions or actors in the book are real; however, he warns that its outcome is, “not far off the mark.”
Grisham hasn’t overstated his case. In a February 24, 2008 article she wrote for Parade magazine, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner complimented Colorado’s merit-based judicial selection system, which allows for voter input during the retention process, as worthy of emulation. “We must decrease the influence of money and politics on judges,” she wrote.
With “The Appeal,” Grisham offers relevant insight into the current American political system and cultural landscape. “The Appeal” appropriately illuminates the realistic consequences of our alarming slide toward pay-to-play justice. For Colorado and the other ten merit selection states, Grisham’s message couldn’t be clearer.
Stacey Beckman, a civil rights attorney, chairs the Paralegal Program at the Community College of Denver, where she teaches Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Evidence, and Legal Writing. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.