At times like this I realize I'm too old to be starting over, working with law clerks. I own pantyhose with more mileage than these kids, and better judgment. For example, two of the clerks, Ben Safer and Artie Weiss, are bickering as we speak; never mind that they're making a scene in an otherwise quiet appellate courtroom, in front of the most expensive members of the Philadelphia bar.
"No arguing in the courtroom," I tell them, in the same tone I use on my six-year-old. Not that it works with her either.
"He started it, Grace," Ben says in a firm stage whisper, standing before the bank of leather chairs against the wall. "He told me he'd save me a seat and he didn't. Now there's no seats left."
"Will you move, geek? You're blocking my sun," Artie says, not bothering to look up from the sports page. He rarely overexerts himself; he's sauntered through life to date, relying on his golden-boy good looks, native intelligence, and uncanny jump shot. He throws one strong leg over the other and turns the page, confident he'll win this argument even if it runs into overtime. Artie, in short, is a winner.
But so is Ben in his own way; he was number two at Chicago Law School, meat grinder of the Midwest. "You told me you'd save me a seat, Weiss," he says, "so you owe me one. Yours. Get up."
"Eat me," Artie says, loud enough to distract the lawyers conferring at the counsel table like a bouquet of bald spots. They'd give him a dirty look if he were anyone else, but because he works for the chief judge they flash capped smiles; you never know which clerk's got your case on his desk.
"Get up. Now, Weiss."
"Separate, you two," I say. "Ben, go sit in the back. Argument's going to start any minute."
"Out of the question. I won't sit in public seating. He said he'd save me a seat, he owes me a seat."
"It's not a contract, Ben," I advise him. For free.
"I understand that. But he should be the one who moves, not me." He straightens the knot on his tie, already at tourniquet tension; between the squeeze on his neck and the one on his sphincter, the kid's twisted shut at both ends like a skinny piece of saltwater taffy. "I have a case being argued."
"So do I, jizzbag," Artie says, flipping the page.
I like Artie, but the problem with the Artie Weisses of the world is they have no limits. "Artie, did you tell him you'd save him a seat?"
"Why would I do that? Then I'd have to sit next to him." He gives Ben the finger behind the tent of newspaper.
I draw the line. "Artie, put your finger away."
"Ooooh, spank me, Grace. Spank me hard. Pull my wittle pants down and throw me over your gorgeous knees."
"You couldn't handle it, big guy."
"Try me." He leans over with a broad grin.
"I mean it, Artie. You're on notice." He doesn't know I haven't had sex since my marriage ended three years ago. Nobody's in the market for a single mother, even a decent-looking one with improved brown hair, authentic blue eyes, and a body that's staying the course, at least as we speak.
"Come on, sugar," Artie says, nuzzling my shoulder. "Live the dream."
"Cut it out."
"You read the book, now see the movie."
I turn toward Ben to avoid laughing; it's not good to laugh when you're setting limits. "Ben, you know he's not going to move. The judges will be out any minute. Go find a seat in the back."
Ben scans the back row where the courthouse groupies sit; it's a lineup that includes retired men, the truly lunatic, even the homeless. Ben, looking them over, makes no effort to hide his disdain; you'd think he'd been asked to skinnydip in the Ganges. He turns to me, vaguely desperate. "Let me have your seat, Grace. I'll take notes for you."
"But my notes are like transcripts. I used to sell them at school."
"I can take my own notes, thank you." Ten years as a trial lawyer, I can handle taking notes; taking notes is mostly what I do now as the assistant to the chief judge. I take notes while real lawyers argue, then I go to the library and draft an opinion that real lawyers cite in their next argument. But I'm not complaining. I took this job because it was part-time and I'm not as good a juggler as Joan Lunden, Paula Zahn, and other circus performers.
"How about you, Sarah?" Ben asks the third law clerk, Sarah Whittemore, sitting on my other side. "You don't have a case this morning. You can sit in the back."
Fat chance. Sarah smooths a strand of cool blond hair away from her face, revealing a nose so diminutive it's a wonder she gets any oxygen at all. "Sorry, I need this seat," she says.
I could have told him that. Sarah wants to represent the downtrodden, not mingle with them.
A paneled door opens near the dais and the court crier, a compact man with a competent air, begins a last-minute check on the microphones at the dais and podium. Ben glances at the back row with dismay. "I can't sit back there with those people. One of them has a plastic hat on, for God's sake."
Artie looks over the top of his paper. "A plastic hat? Where?"
"There." Ben jerks his thumb toward a bearded man sporting a crinkled cellophane rain bonnet and a black raincoat buttoned to the neck. The man's collar is flipped up, ready for monsoon season, but it's not raining in the courtroom today.
"It's Shake and Bake! He came!" Artie says. His face lights up and he waves at the man with his newspaper. "Go sit with him, Safer, he's all right."
"You know that guy, Artie?" I ask, sitting straighter to get a better look. The bearded man grins in a loopy way at the massive gold seal of the United States courts mounted behind the dais, his grubby face tilted to the disk like a black-eyed Susan to the sun.
"Sure. He hangs out at the Y, plays ball with me and Armen. You oughta see his spin move, it's awesome when he's not zoned out. I told him to stop by and see the judge on the bench."
Ben's dark eyes widen. "You invited that kook to oral argument? How could you do that?"
I don't say it, but for the first time I agree with Ben. I am becoming a geek, a superannuated geek.
Why shouldn't he come to court?" Artie says. "It's a free country. He's got rights." He stands up and signals widely, as ill-mannered as a golden retriever puppy; Artie's the pick of the litter out of Harvard, where they evidently do not teach common sense.
The lawyers in the first three rows of the courtroom crane their necks at him, and I tug at the rough khaki of his sport coat. "Artie, don't embarrass me," I say.
Sarah leans over. "Artie, you're crazier than he is. Sit down."
"He's not crazy," Artie says, still signaling.
"He's wearing Saran Wrap," I point out.
"He always does. It's Shake and Bake, man. You gotta love it."
"Fine," Ben says. "You like him so much, you go sit with him."
"Don't mind if I do. Party on, Safer." Artie claps Ben on the back and walks toward the back row.
"Please rise!" shouts the crier, standing behind a desk at the side of the dais. "The Honorable Judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit."
A concealed door to the left of the dais swings open, and the judges parade out, resplendent in their swishing black robes. The federal courts decide appeals in three-judge panels, inviting comparison to the three wise men or the three stooges, depending on whether you win or lose. First comes the Honorable Phillip Galanter, tall, thin, and Aryan, with slack jowls like Ed Meese used to have and blond hair thinning to gray. He's followed by a wizened senior judge, the Honorable Morris Townsend, shuffling slowly along, and finally the Very Honorable and Terribly Handsome Chief Judge Armen Gregorian, my boss.
"Armen looks good up there, doesn't he?" Sarah says, crossing her legs under the skirt of her sleek slate-gray suit.
He sure as hell does. Towering over the two of them, Armen grins down at the crowd in an easy way. His complexion is tinged with olive; his oversized teeth remind me of an exotic JFK. There are precious few perks in working for the judicial branch, and a boss who looks like a sultan is one of them. I lean near Sarah's perfumed neck and whisper, "I got first dibs."
"In your dreams."
"But you're too young for him."
She smirks. "Too young? Is there such a thing?"
"Bitch." I elbow her in the ovary.
"Oyez! Oyez!" calls the crier. "All persons having business with the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for this court is now in session. God save the United States and this honorable court. Be seated, please."
The panel sits down and the first appeal begins. Ben takes notes on the argument by the appellant's lawyer, who had his civil case dismissed by the district court ten floors below us. The young lawyer has been granted ten minutes without questions from the judges to present his argument, but he's blowing them fast. Armen's forehead wrinkles with concern; he wants to cut to the chase, but this poor guy can't get out of the garage.
"A Third Circuit virgin," Ben says, with the superior snicker of someone who has never done it. I fail to see the humor. I know what it's like to stand before a judge when the words you memorized don't seem to come and the ones that do roll down backward through your gullet and tumble out your butt.
"I guess my time is up," the lawyer says, obviously relieved to see the Christmas light on the podium blink from yellow to red. He thinks the hard part's over, but he's dead wrong. The light turns green again. Go!
"Who wants the first question?" Armen says, looking over his colleagues on the panel. He flicks a silky black forelock out of his eyes; he always needs a haircut, it's part of his sex appeal. "Judge Galanter?"
"Counsel," Judge Galanter says quickly, "your appeal concerns the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, RICO, but I wonder if you understand why the statute at issue was enacted by Congress."
"It was passed because of organized crime, Your Honor."
"The statute was aimed at extortionists, murderers, and loan sharks. The typical organized criminals, correct?"
The young lawyer looks puzzled. "Yes, Judge Galanter."
"It prohibits a pattern of racketeering activity, the so-called predicate acts, does it not?"
Armen shifts in his high-backed chair.
"But your client isn't suing mobsters under RICO, is he, counsel?" Galanter says.
"With all due respect, Your Honor, I think this appeal presents a matter of national importance. It involves the manipulation of-"
"Flower peddlers, isn't that right, counsel? Not mobsters, not extortionists, not killers. Florists. The ad says, Nothing but the Best for Your Wedding or Bar Mitzvah." He chuckles, as does the gallery. They have to, he's an Article III Judge, as in Article III of the Constitution; if you don't laugh, the FBI shows up at your door.
"Yes, the defendants are floral vendors."
Galanter's thin lips part in an approximation of a smile and he arches an eyebrow so blond it's almost invisible. "Floral vendors? Is that a term of art, counsel?"
The gallery laughs again.
"Florists," the lawyer concedes.
"Thank you. Now, carnations are the bulk of your client's business, is that correct?" Galanter flips through the appendix with assurance and reads aloud. "Pink ones, red ones, even the sprayed ones,' according to your client's affidavit. Although I see sweetheart roses did well in February." He pauses to look significantly at Judge Townsend, but Townsend's eyes are closed; God knows which way he'll go on this case. He thinks people enter his dreams to have sex with him, so it's impossible to tell right now if he's pondering RICO law or watching lesbians frolic.
"They're a group of florists. A network of florists."
"Oh, I see, a ring of florists. Do you think Congress intended even a ring of florists to be covered by this racketeering statute?"
Armen hunches over his microphone. "Counsel, does it really matter what they sell?"
"Go get 'em, boss," I say under my breath.
"Sir?" says the lawyer. He grabs the side of the podium like a kid stowed away on a sinking ship.
"It wouldn't make sense to have a rule of law that turned on the occupation of the defendant, would it?"
"No, sir," says the lawyer, shaking his head.
Armen leans forward, his eyes dark as Turkish coffee. "In fact, after what the Supreme Court said in Scheidler, even a group of abortion protestors can be subject to RICO, isn't that right, Mr. Noble?"
Galanter glances over at Armen like a jockey on a Thoroughbred. "But Chief Justice Rehnquist made clear in Scheidler that there was a pattern of extortion, of federal crimes. Where's the federal crimes with the floral conspiracy? Florists wielding pruning shears? Gimme that money or I snip the orchid?" Galanter shudders comically and the gallery laughs on cue.
"But they do threaten society," the lawyer says, fumbling for the rigging. "Mr. Canavan signed a contract, and they didn't send him any orders. They intended to drive Canavan Flowers into bankruptcy. It was part of a plan."
"Your client did file for Chapter Eleven protection, didn't he?" Armen says.
Suddenly Judge Townsend emits a noisy snort that sounds like an ancient steamboat chugging to life. Armen and Galanter look over as Judge Townsend's heavy-lidded eyes creak open. "If I may, I have a question," he says, smacking his dry lips.
"Go right ahead," Armen says. Galanter forces a well-bred smile.
"Thank you, Chief Judge Gregorian," Judge Townsend says. He nods graciously. "Now, counselor, why are you letting my colleagues badger you?"
The smile on Galanter's face freezes in place. The gallery laughs uncertainly.
"Sir?" the lawyer says.
Judge Townsend snorts again and lists gently to the starboard side. "As I see it, the question with this new statute is always the same."
Ben whispers, "New? RICO was passed in the seventies."
"The question is always, How is this case different from a case of garden variety fraud? How is it different from other injuries to one's business, which we decide under the common law?" Judge Townsend waves his wrinkled hand in the air; it cuts a jagged swath. "In other words, have you got some precedent for us? A case to hang your hat on?"
The lawyer reads his notes. "Wait a minute, Your Honor."
Judge Townsend blinks once, then again. Galanter smooths back the few hairs he has left. The lawyers in the gallery glance at one another. They're all thinking the same thing: Nobody tells the Third Circuit to wait a minute. The answers are supposed to roll off your tongue. The case is supposed to be at your fingertips. Better you should pee on the counsel table.
"Way to go, Einstein," Ben says.
"I know I have the case somewhere," says the attorney, nervously riffling through his legal pad. He should be nervous; the circuit court is the last stop before the Supreme Court, which takes fewer appeals each year. It's all those speaking engagements.
"Armen's upset," Sarah whispers, and I follow her eyes. Armen is looking down, worried about the appeal. The only sound in the tense courtroom is a frantic rustling as the lawyer ransacks the podium. A yellow page sails to the rich navy carpet.
The silence seems to intensify.
Galanter glares at the lawyer's bent head.
A sound shatters the silence - ticktickticktickticktick - from the back of the courtroom.
The back rows of the gallery turn around. The sound is loud, unmistakable.
Row after row looks back in disbelief, then in alarm.
"It's a bomb!" one of the lawyers shouts.
"A bomb!" yells an older lawyer. "No!"
The crowded courtroom bursts into chaos. The gallery surges to its feet in confusion and fear. Lawyers grab their briefcases and files. People slam into each other in panic, trying to escape to the exit doors.
"No!" someone shouts. "Stay calm!"
I look wildly toward the back row where Artie was sitting. I can't see him at all. The mob at the back is pushing and shouting.
Ben and other law clerks run for the judges' exit next to the dais. My heart begins to thunder. Time is slowed, stretched out.
"Artie's back there!" I shout.
Sarah grabs my arm. "Armen!"
I look back at the dais. Armen stands at the center, shielding his eyes from the overhead lights, squinting into the back row. Judge Townsend is stalled at his chair.
Galanter snatches Armen's gavel and pounds it on the dais: boom boom boom! "Order! Order, I say!" he bellows, red-faced. He slams the chief judge's gavel again and again. "Order!"
"Oh, my God," Armen says, when he realizes what's happening. "It can't be."
1994© by Lisa Scottoline. All rights reserved.