Thrillers thrive on villains and heroes, and usually these characters are not overly complicated; writers don’t want to confuse or slow the plot. In John Grisham’s page turners the villains are corporate titans and their lawyers, and the plucky, idealistic heroes (played in the movie versions by Tom Cruise in “The Firm” and Julia Roberts in “The Pelican Brief”) are renegade lawyers or law students, shocked into action by the corruption they have stumbled across.
Grisham sticks with his formula for the villains in “The Appeal.” Grisham’s heroes in “The Appeal” are plaintiffs’ lawyers, the much maligned litigators who represent victims of alleged corporate wrongdoing. Their excuse for taking a third to 40 percent of their clients’ winnings — even if those winnings are in the millions or billions (in the case of mass tort claims against asbestos or tobacco defendants) — is that their little-guy clients don’t have the money to pay hourly fees in advance of a verdict, and that it’s those big paydays that give them the incentive and resources to take on risky cases that deliver powerfully deterrent punishment to those who would otherwise keep committing all kinds of corporate jihad. It’s an argument, however, that’s been undermined by the spectacle of trial lawyers cashing in on cases where deep-pocketed, well-insured defendants who might not be fully culpable or culpable at all threw in the towel out of fear that sympathetic juries were too easily rewarding any tug at their heartstrings, and by revelations of corruption in recruiting clients and divvying up fees among fellow vultures of the bar who did little more than race to the scenes of tragedies.
Grisham presents both sides. While plaintiffs’ lawyers are the heroes in this fast-moving, smartly constructed tale, they also come off as greedy, self-absorbed and repugnant — true ambulance chasers. In fact, at the small, beleaguered Mississippi firm run by his two heroes — the husband-and-wife team of Mary Grace and Wes Payton — a paralegal asks during some down time from the big case if he can go back to chasing ambulances, literally.
To be sure, Payton & Payton are doing God’s work. They’ve spent years representing a woman in a small town in Mississippi whose husband and son died within weeks of each other, victims of cancer allegedly caused by deliberate cost-cutting spills into the town’s drinking water by big, bad Krane Chemical. The Paytons’ painstaking marshalling of the evidence against Krane makes for a seemingly indefensible defendant. The cancer rate in the town has become 15 times the national average. The town’s water is so fouled that the swimming pool has long since been closed and bottled water is trucked in daily for everyone. In the real world, most companies would settle a case like this. Trudeau is a parody of evil, Grishamstyle. Mary Grace and Wes Payton have had to endure years of the pretrial war of attrition that companies like Krane can throw at plaintiffs. Grisham opens “The Appeal” with the verdict about to be announced, finally, after 71 days of a mind-numbing trial. Facing the sleepless Paytons in the tense small-town courtroom is a team of well-coiffed corporate litigators. Grisham captures the leader’s “I’m getting $500 an hour no matter what these goober jurors say and we’ll win on appeal anyway” smugness exactly as I saw it when I was covering trials like this.
Thousands more are sick, and others, encouraged by their new lawyers, will now claim to be sick. Trudeau, the chief executive who controls Krane, soon hears — through a corrupt Southern senator — about a shadowy man in Florida who operates a secretive political consulting firm that can save Krane. How? Because Krane’s appeal of the Paytons’ case will go to the Mississippi Supreme Court in the next year or so, and Krane won’t have to pay anyone a penny if the court throws the case out.
The consulting firm, having taken an $8 million fee (by way of Bermuda) from Trudeau, targets and anoints as their candidate an obscure Mississippi lawyer. He’s never been a judge, much less thought about being a Supreme Court justice. But he’s a great family man and right on conservative issues (even those irrelevant to Mississippi jurisprudence but good for TV ads). The consultant’s operatives tell the credulous lawyer that they represent conservatives who want to protect the nation’s courts. Thus, because he’s the model of probity and common sense that the Mississippi court needs, they’ll contribute millions for a media blitz to support his candidacy. Meantime, Krane’s lawyers file blizzards of paper to ensure that the appeal to the Supreme Court won’t be heard until after the judicial election.
An utterly depressing political campaign ensues, in which the scholarly, middle-of-the-road and blindsided incumbent Supreme Court justice is painted in attack ads as a left-wing woman of loose morals. Meanwhile, the Krane consultant’s Manchurian challenger, coached by a platoon of operatives who would make Karl Rove blush, preens in 30-second TV spots with his family and his hunting rifle.
There’s lots of other intrigue worthy of a Grisham novel — missing witnesses, destroyed evidence, insider stock trading. It’s a shame, though, that Grisham’s grace in constructing a sophisticated story is so poorly matched by his writing. Clichés and redundancies (“lavish splendor,” “a hothead with a massive ego who hated to lose”) fill the book, and at times his weakness with words is painful to watch. His description, for example, of Trudeau’s anorexic wife at a charity dinner reads as if someone new to English decided to mimic “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”
Still, Grisham keeps his story moving. And he not only moves to a surprising ending but makes a real point about how judicial elections undermine the integrity of any justice system. It’s bad enough that those in our executive and legislative branches can take contributions from people who have business before them to finance elections quarterbacked by spinmeisters and filled with phony attack ads. But the notion of obscure judges — charged with ruling objectively on crucial, complicated points of law — being showered with millions from lawyers, litigants and other special interests who have cases before them is worse.
One of the publications I used to run, The Texas Lawyer, once did a series of articles on elections for that state’s highest court. (We also made a small fortune selling ads to judicial candidates looking for contributions from our lawyer-readers.) Texas was also the state where one obscure lawyer seemed to have been elected a justice simply because his name sounded like that of a respected former Texas politician.
To be fair, in many states big business started to sponsor judicial candidates only after realizing that the trial lawyers had beat them to it. Thus Texas and Mississippi had become what our publication called “plaintiffs’ paradises,” places where juries would indiscriminately reward plaintiffs’ lawyers and their clients, and the appellate courts would go along. Grisham’s story doesn’t quite convey that Mississippi had, before the emergence of this Krane-sponsored Manchurian judge, become a plaintiffs’ paradise, but he implies it in the way he describes the corporate reaction to the Krane case. More important, he focuses on the absurdity, no matter which side you are on, of judicial elections. Unlike a lot of novels and TV docudramas that selectively latch onto facts to create a false picture, “The Appeal” delivers a real picture of a real problem.
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