On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I deviated from my examination of the Criminal Justice System to pay tribute to the great Civil Rights leader in a timely fashion. Intending to return to this subject in my next blog-post, and explore the subject of prosecutors, I have decided that a further deviation is necessary due to the recent release of an important book, Supreme Ambitions, a novel by David Lat, the creator of the well-respected and heavily visited website, Above The Law.

I identify this novel as important, because while most Americans have some knowledge of criminal trials from books, movies, and television, very few have any idea of how the appeals process works, and little insight into the role of appellate judges, their clerks, and the lawyers who constitute the working blocks of this facet of our Judicial System. And by illustrating this more esoteric arena via a novel that entertains while it educates, Lat makes a highly valuable contribution to our understanding of this critical component of the Judicial System, and I highly recommend it as a must read.

Supreme Ambitions’ angle of entry inside this world is to provide the reader with a fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day lives and motivations of the young, super-competitive law clerks who win highly coveted positions with federal appeals judges, by focusing, in a fast-paced and contemporary style, on one young Harvard undergrad/Yale Law School grad as she comes to terms with the “little monstrous,” “tough, strident, and manipulative” behavior required to be successful.

From the beginning, it is clear that most of these clerks (who play a vital role in providing appellate judges with mountains of research and recommendations on important legal issues) are there as a stepping-stone to a U.S. Supreme Court clerkship, which in turn is a ticket to a $300,000 signing bonus (goodbye student loans!) at a prestigious New York law firm. Artfully, Lat provides the reader with an insight into the long hours, the minutiae, and the complete lack of credit that are part and parcel of the clerks’ job, and allows the reader to repeatedly face the ethical questions that haunt the novel’s young protagonist Audrey.

In the end, while being entertained, the reader is presented with a clear view of the personal and career consequences both of going along to get along, as well as the contentious issue of (relative) whistle-blowing, and comes away perhaps more cynical about the human workings of the Judicial System, but with at least a trace of idealism extant.

Congratulations to David Lat for authoring such a valuable and must-read book!

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