David Lat’s first novel, “Supreme Ambitions,” deftly dissects judicial power, how to get it and how to use (and abuse) it

David Lat is a champion of judicial transparency even though he is a slightly monstrous one. If you read his first novel, and I heartily recommend it, you will understand my choice of words.

The annoying thing is that Lat is young. If you don’t know about his first blog, you have not been paying attention to the federal judiciary. Entitled  Underneath Their Robes, and written under the pseudonym Article III Groupie (because he was then a junior federal prosecutor and federal prosecutors are typically plodding and illiterate and constitutionally unable to rock the boat), Lat wrote snarky, terrifically funny, sometimes shocking, and always utterly revealing pieces about federal judges and their law clerks including especially those at the Supreme Court. These offerings were not made up. He had real sources and they leaked everything to him. Highly regarded federal appellate judges sought him out for coverage. He wrote in a female voice, and his fashion sense was as acute as his other skills.

It took a kid’s courage, a scamp’s mind, and boatload of diverse talents equivalent to a dangerously packed Filipino ferry to do what he did. Did I mention Harvard, Yale law, a clerkship with the brilliant Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the Ninth Circuit, a stint at Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz and an appointment as an AUSA under (bad word choice) United States Attorney Chris Christie (yea, that guy)?

Lat was born in 1975, just like my second daughter Lisa. That makes me want to kill him.

Lat was born in 1975, just like my second daughter Lisa. That makes me want to kill him.

Lat revealed his identity in a November 2005 interview with Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker. After that, he left his prosecutor’s position in New Jersey to enter the literary world, founding, among other things, the everything-about-law-site, Above the Law.

And now we have the wunderkind’s first novel. It will be on “book stands” in hard cover around December 1, 2014, but you can (and should) pre-order now. The list price is $22.95, but Amazon will sell it at a pre-order price of $17.21. Published by the ABA, Lat titled his book Supreme Ambitions.

Lat’s novel is a cross between a serious look into the heart of darkness and an insouciant study of Manolo Blahnik footwear. It recounts the story of a young women, Audrey, who is half-asian. She is beautiful, poor, a gunner without being a mean girl, and a Yale law graduate. Audrey serves as a law clerk to a ruthless female federal appellate judge on the Ninth Circuit who is also of Asian origin. Our heroine desperately wants to clerk for a Justice of the Supreme Court. If Audrey plays her cards right, her Ninth Circuit boss, with more than a passing interest in the Supreme Court herself, can fulfill the waif’s supreme ambition. But what if Audrey must sell her integrity to get what she wants? For the rest of this captivating story, buy the book.

In no particular order, here are a few of my thoughts:supreme-ambitions-cover (1)

  • The novel is more about truth than fiction. This is legal realism at its finest but told in the highly unusual and difficult form of a a well-crafted novel. Concentrate on the details as you read this piece. It is Lat’s attention to that detail–the manner of speaking, the fixation on appearances, the guardedness, the obscene opulence of appellate judicial chambers, the hard, hard work that appellate law clerks are required to put in, the silly and ultimately unwarranted hero worship of federal appellate judges by law clerks just out of law school, the horrid egotism that runs unchecked and unchallenged among so many federal appellate judges, the use of words to hurt and demean for no reason other than to feel the sharpness of the blade cut sinew, and the pettiness, oh, the pettiness–that both brings this novel to life and gives it more than passing significance.
  • Especially for me, the book brought back memories. Long, long, long, long ago, I served as a law clerk to Judge Donald R. Ross on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. It was the best job I have ever had. Lat’s novel reminded me of that wonderful period when high drama appeared around every corner. When my judge secretly flew out to the east coast on a private jet during the midst of Watergate, the fact that he had formerly been Vice Chair of the RNC, the fact that he had been the arrangements chair for the 1968 Republican convention in Miami, and the fact that he was the lawyer who dumped Barry Goldwater and his acolytes from power within the GOP, punctuated the point that some federal appellate judges remain unseen national power brokers even after they take the bench. My memory fits perfectly with Lat’s intriguing narrative.
  • Lat is a taxonomist of the first order. He divides federal appellate judges into two camps. The CEOs who manage cases, but who find little interest in the nitty-gritty of the law. They are said to see the big picture. Alternatively, there are the judges who are technicians who love the law, and the nitty-gritty that goes with it. They are said to be the intellectuals. While this division does not always hold true in real life, my experience suggests that Lat’s taxonomy is generally accurate. For what it is worth, my view is that the perfect appellate judge is the one who blends both attributes. Unfortunately, there aren’t many of those judges.
  • If you are expecting something from the likes of John Grisham, look elsewhere.
  • There is a hipster quality to the book, but it is not overdone.
  • Snark? Oh, of course. Do you know what TTT stands for? It stands for “Third Tier Toilet.” Snotty appellate law clerks from elite law schools use TTT to describe law schools like the University of Nebraska College of Law, my law school. At times, the novel has a very sharp edge to it.
  • Lat’s use of his real life blog Underneath Their Robes as an important element in the story initially annoyed me because it seemed needlessly self-promotional, but the device ultimately ended up being brilliant.
  • Until the end, there were not enough white guys. I’m kidding, but only sorta. As you reach the end of the novel, I think Lat wants you to think about Chief Judge Kozinski (a former law clerk to Warren Burger, Supreme Court of the United States, 1976-1977) and his independence, his brilliance, his weirdness, his powerful writing, his love of the law, his understanding of power, his terrific sense of humor and his intellectual honesty. Lat hints that such men (and women) are there if only the political will exists to put them on the upper rungs of the federal judiciary. And so it is, as the 281-page offering ends, that Lat provides me with a glimmer of hope.
  • The novel is fun for the gossip potential too. If you know what to look for, you can find references to present day Judges and Justices, although their names are changed. There a several nods to Lat’s old boss, Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the Ninth Circuit, but, of course, under a different name. Of particular interest to me, Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Steven Colloton is favorably mentioned as “feeder” judge to the Supreme Court but under another name. Later, he is mentioned as a likely candidate for the Supreme Court. By the way, I know Steve (just a little) having sat with him on the Court of Appeals and worked with him on other projects. Lat’s speculation about the upward trajectory of this young Iowa federal appellate judge from flyover country fits my guess-work. That said, and while I like and respect him an awful lot, Steve would be well advised to polish his interpersonal skills with other judges. Just sayin’.
  • In the book, Lat uses court cases as stage props, but he gives us realistic cases to ponder. Because the novel concentrates on the tension between judges of different jurisprudential stripes (“conservative” and “liberal”), Lat is forced to describe the arguments for and against the competing alternatives. His analysis is balanced. Indeed, there are portions of the novel when the characters are getting down to the cases where Lat’s book might serve as a fun “hornbook.” Again, the detail Lat provides gives the novel a feel of reality that would be impossible to achieve without it.
  • I continue to thank the God(s) that my law clerks (Jan and Jim) are career clerks. Lat accurately describes the kids just out of law school who populate the ranks of federal appellate clerks. Sure, they are brilliant. But the acne that still dots the faces of many of them highlights their immaturity, and the ultra strange fact that important decisions are substantially shaped by children scares me.
  • Lat pens dialogue reasonably well for a first timer. Some of it is even marvelous. Dialogue is not, however, his strength. Because Lat is such a wonderful observer, I hungered for longer strings of dialogue but that is not found in Supreme Ambitions. Good dialogue is impossibly hard to write without years of practice. He will get better with time.
  • Next time around (and I strongly encourage Lat to continue writing novels), I would like David to concentrate on the TTT of the federal judiciary, the federal trial courts. There is a drama there as well as a desperate need for transparency. Again, the great value of Lat’s work is that he gives us legal realism in a transparent and knowing manner while using the unusually difficult but terrifically engaging device of a novel. Lat can become the master of this powerful new way of describing our opaque federal judiciary. I sincerely hope he continues.

RGK

9 responses

  1. I don’t (personally) know anyone who likes Lat as much as you, but he once referred to me as his “go to source for pleadings about human bodily fluids” so, I guess I’m a fan too. I may even read the book. Well, one of them.

  2. I will check out the book. A word about this whole “TTT” business: I’ve seen that term on the Internet. I never heard it at law school, even at Duke which is reputed to house the most arrogant law students who weren’t smart enough to get into Harvard. I’ve certainly never heard the term spoken in the real world, at that point one has to contend with all the actual people who populated such schools, like one of the co-clerks on my court who went to law school at night and can correctly answer an uncomfortably large number of the legal questions I have without conducting any research. I think the unfortunate perception that all these arrogant kids from “elite” or “T14” schools generally look down their noses at everyone else might be about as accurate as the entire idea of TTT.

  3. Judge Kopf, thank you so much for this wonderful review. You are too kind — not that I am complaining!

    Jennifer, I hope that SOME folks like me — despite the apple carts that my blogging sometimes upsets, I try to be a decent person in day-to-day interactions. I know my mother likes me at least….

    Jill, I agree with you; I don’t hear “TTT” much conversationally (and for the record, I did not invent the term). I’m taking a little artistic license here — the term is used in the novel by a not very likable, highly elitist character. I wanted to make the novel fairly realistic, but I did take some liberties to spice up the narrative.

    Thanks to all of you for your interest!

  4. Pingback: Book Review: David Lat’s Supreme Ambitions | Maryland Appellate Blog

  5. Steve,

    I did read yours earlier this afternoon and I was particulary taken by your discussion of dialogue. I understand you are something of a playwright yourself.

    Your analysis fascinated me. I particularly liked this: “The easiest way to fix that issue in a (hopefully forthcoming) second novel would be for Lat to ask friends to read dialogue exchanges out loud with him, to gauge whether anyone would say each sentence out loud. It’s a long, frustrating process that, in the end, works wonders.”

    All the best.

    RGK

  6. Pingback: Early Reviews For Supreme Ambitions | Supreme Ambitions

  7. Pingback: Book Review: David Lat’s Supreme Ambitions | Simple Justice

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