The Pelican Brief

by John Grisham

Paperback, 387 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $16 | purchase

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The Pelican Brief
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John Grisham

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Book Summary

When the Supreme Court's most liberal and most conservative justices are gunned down, law student Darby Shaw builds a case against a powerful suspect, whose threats send her underground. Reprint. 35,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: The Pelican Brief

1

HE SEEMED INCAPABLE of creating such chaos, but much of what he saw below could be blamed on him. And that was fine. He was ninety-one, paralyzed, strapped in a wheelchair and hooked to oxygen. His second stroke seven years ago had almost finished him off, but Abraham Rosenberg was still alive and even with tubes in his nose his legal stick was bigger than the other eight. He was the only legend remaining on the Court, and the fact that he was still breathing irritated most of the mob below.

He sat in a small wheelchair in an office on the main floor of the Supreme Court Building. His feet touched the edge of the window, and he strained forward as the noise increased. He hated cops, but the sight of them standing in thick, neat lines was somewhat comforting. They stood straight and held ground as the mob of at least fifty thousand screamed for blood.

"Biggest crowd ever!" Rosenberg yelled at the window. He was almost deaf. Jason Kline, his senior law clerk, stood behind him. It was the first Monday in October, the opening day of the new term, and this had become a traditional celebration of the First Amendment. A glorious celebration. Rosenberg was thrilled. To him, freedom of speech meant freedom to riot.

"Are the Indians out there?" he asked loudly.

Jason Kline leaned closer to his right ear. "Yes!"

"With war paint?"

"Yes! In full battle dress."

"Are they dancing?"

"Yes!"

The Indians, the blacks, whites, browns, women, gays, tree lovers, Christians, abortion activists, Aryans, Nazis, atheists, hunters, animal lovers, white supremacists, black supremacists, tax protestors, loggers, farmers—it was a massive sea of protest. And the riot police gripped their black sticks.

"The Indians should love me!"

"I'm sure they do." Kline nodded and smiled at the frail little man with clenched fists. His ideology was simple; government over business, the individual over government, the environment over everything. And the Indians, give them whatever they want.

The heckling, praying, singing, chanting, and screaming grew louder, and the riot police inched closer together. The crowd was larger and rowdier than in recent years. Things were more tense. Violence had become common. Abortion clinics had been bombed. Doctors had been attacked and beaten. One was killed in Pensacola, gagged and bound into the fetal position and burned with acid. Street fights were weekly events. Churches and priests had been abused by militant gays. White supremacists operated from a dozen known, shadowy, paramilitary organizations, and had become bolder in their attacks on blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. Hatred was now America's favorite pastime.

And the Court, of course, was an easy target. Threats, serious ones, against the justices had increased tenfold since 1990. The Supreme Court police had tripled in size. At least two FBI agents were assigned to guard each justice, and another fifty were kept busy investigating threats.

"They hate me, don't they?" he said loudly, staring out the window.

"Yes, some of them do," Kline answered with amusement.

Rosenberg liked to hear that. He smiled and inhaled deeply. Eighty percent of the death threats were aimed at him.

"See any of those signs?" he asked. He was nearly blind.

"Quite a few."

"What do they say?"

"The usual. Death to Rosenberg. Retire Rosenberg. Cut Off the Oxygen."

"They've been waving those same damned signs for years. Why don't they get some new ones?"

The clerk did not answer. Abe should've retired years ago, but they would carry him out one day on a stretcher. His three law clerks did most of the research, but Rosenberg insisted on writing his own opinions. He did so with a heavy felt-tip marker and his words were scrawled across a white legal pad, much like a first-grader learning to write. Slow work, but with a lifetime appointment, who cared about time? The clerks proofed his opinions, and rarely found mistakes.

Rosenberg chuckled. "We oughta feed Runyan to the Indians." The Chief Justice was John Runyan, a tough conservative appointed by a Republican and hated by the Indians and most other minorities. Seven of the nine had been appointed by Republican Presidents. For fifteen years Rosenberg had been waiting for a Democrat in the White House. He wanted to quit, needed to quit, but he could not stomach the idea of a right-wing Runyan type taking his beloved seat.

He could wait. He could sit here in his wheelchair and breathe oxygen and protect the Indians, the blacks, the women, the poor, the handicapped, and the environment until he was a hundred and five. And not a single person in the world could do a damned thing about it, unless they killed him. And that wouldn't be such a bad idea either.

The great man's head nodded, then wobbled and rested on his shoulder. He was asleep again. Kline quietly stepped away, and returned to his research in the library. He would return in half an hour to check the oxygen and give Abe his pills.


THE OFFICE of the Chief Justice is on the main floor, and is larger and more ornate than the other eight. The outer office is used for small receptions and formal gatherings, and the inner office is where the Chief works.

The door to the inner office was closed, and the room was filled with the Chief, his three law clerks, the captain of the Supreme Court police, three FBI agents, and K. O. Lewis, deputy director, FBI. The mood was serious, and a serious effort was under way to ignore the noise from the streets below. It was difficult. The Chief and Lewis discussed the latest series of death threats, and everyone else just listened. The clerks took notes.

In the past sixty days, the Bureau had logged over two hundred threats, a new record. There was the usual assortment of "Bomb the Court!" threats, but many came with specifics—like names, cases, and issues.

Runyan made no effort to hide his anxiety. Working from a confidential FBI summary, he read the names of individuals and groups suspected of threats. The Klan, the Aryans, the Nazis, the Palestinians, the black separatists, the pro-lifers, the homophobics. Even the IRA. Everyone, it seemed, but the Rotarians and the Boy Scouts. A Middle East group backed by the Iranians had threatened blood on American soil in retaliation for the deaths of two justice ministers in Tehran. There was absolutely no evidence the murders were linked to the U.S. A new domestic terrorist unit of recent fame known as the Underground Army had killed a federal trial judge in Texas with a car bomb. No arrests had been made, but the UA claimed responsibility. It was also the prime suspect in a dozen bombings of ACLU offices, but its work was very clean.

"What about these Puerto Rican terrorists?" Runyan asked without looking up.

"Lightweights. We're not worried," K. O. Lewis answered casually. "They've been threatening for twenty years."

"Well, maybe it's time they did something. The climate is right, don't you think?"

"Forget the Puerto Ricans, Chief." Runyan liked to be called Chief. Not Chief Justice, nor Mr. Chief Justice. Just Chief. "They're just threatening because everyone else is."

"Very funny," the Chief said without smiling. "Very funny. I'd hate for some group to be left out." Runyan threw the summary on his desk and rubbed his temples. "Let's talk about security." He closed his eyes.

K. O. Lewis laid his copy of the summary on the Chief's desk. "Well, the Director thinks we should place four agents with each Justice, at least for the next ninety days. We'll use limousines with escorts to and from work, and the Supreme Court police will provide backup and secure this building."

"What about travel?"

"It's not a good idea, at least for now. The Director thinks the justices should remain in the D.C. area until the end of the year."

"Are you crazy? Is he crazy? If I asked my brethren to follow that request they would all leave town tonight and travel for the next month. That's absurd." Runyan frowned at his law clerks, who shook their heads in disgust. Truly absurd.

Lewis was unmoved. This was expected. "As you wish. Just a suggestion."

"A foolish suggestion."

"The Director did not expect your cooperation on that one. He would, however, expect to be notified in advance of all travel plans so that we can arrange security."

"You mean, you plan to escort each Justice each time he leaves the city?"

"Yes, Chief. That's our plan."

"Won't work. These people are not accustomed to being baby-sat."

"Yes sir. And they're not accustomed to being stalked either. We're just trying to protect you and your honorable brethren, sir. Of course, no one says we have to do anything. I think, sir, that you called us. We can leave, if you wish."

Runyan rocked forward in his chair and attacked a paper clip, prying the curves out of it and trying to make it perfectly straight. "What about around here?"

Lewis sighed and almost smiled. "We're not worried about this building, Chief. It's an easy place to secure. We don't expect trouble here."

"Then where?"

Lewis nodded at a window. The noise was louder. "Out there somewhere. The streets are full of idiots and maniacs and zealots."

"And they all hate us."

"Evidently. Listen, Chief, we're very concerned about Justice Rosenberg. He still refuses to allow our men inside his home; makes them sit in a car in the street all night. He will allow his favorite Supreme Court officer—what's his name? Ferguson—to sit by the back door, outside, but only from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M. No one gets in the house but Justice Rosenberg and his male nurse. The place is not secure."


Runyan picked his fingernails with the paper clip and smiled slightly to himself. Rosenberg's death, by any means or method, would be a relief. No, it would be a glorious occasion. The Chief would have to wear black and give a eulogy, but behind locked doors he would chuckle with his law clerks. Runyan liked this thought.

"What do you suggest?" he asked.

"Can you talk to him?"

"I've tried. I've explained to him that he is probably the most hated man in America, that millions of people curse him every day, that most folks would like to see him dead, that he receives four times the hate mail as the rest of us combined, and that he would be a perfect and easy target for assassination."

Lewis waited. "And?"

"Told me to kiss his ass, then fell asleep."

The law clerks giggled properly, then the FBI agents realized humor was permitted and joined in for a quick laugh.

"So what do we do?" asked Lewis, unamused.

"You protect him as best you can, put it in writing, and don't worry about it. He fears nothing, including death, and if he's not sweating it, why should you?"

"The Director is sweating, so I'm sweating, Chief. It's very simple. If one of you guys gets hurt, the Bureau looks bad."

The Chief rocked quickly in his chair. The racket from outside was unnerving. This meeting had dragged on long enough. "Forget Rosenberg. Maybe he'll die in his sleep. I'm more concerned over Jensen."

"Jensen's a problem," Lewis said, flipping pages.

"I know he's a problem," Runyan said slowly. "He's an embarrassment. Now he thinks he's a liberal. Votes like Rosenberg half the time. Next month, he'll be a white supremacist and support segregated schools. Then he'll fall in love with the Indians and want to give them Montana. It's like having a retarded child."

"He's being treated for depression, you know."

"I know, I know. He tells me about it. I'm his father figure. What drug?"

"Prozac."

The Chief dug under his fingernails. "What about that aerobics instructor he was seeing? She still around?"

"Not really, Chief. I don't think he cares for women." Lewis was smug. He knew more. He glanced at one of his agents and confirmed this juicy little tidbit.

Runyan ignored it, didn't want to hear it. "Is he cooperating?"

"Of course not. In many ways he's worse than Rosenberg. He allows us to escort him to his apartment building, then makes us sit in the parking lot all night. He's seven floors up, remember. We can't even sit in the lobby. Might upset his neighbors, he says. So we sit in the car. There are ten ways in and out of the building, and it's impossible to protect him. He likes to play hide-and-seek with us. He sneaks around all the time, so we never know if he's in the building or not. At least with Rosenberg we know where he is all night. Jensen's impossible."

"Great. If you can't follow him, how could an assassin?"

Lewis hadn't thought of this. He missed the humor. "The Director is very concerned with Justice Jensen's safety."

"He doesn't receive that many threats."

"Number six on the list, just a few less than you, your honor."

"Oh. So I'm in fifth place."

"Yes. Just behind Justice Manning. He's cooperating, by the way. Fully."

"He's afraid of his shadow," the Chief said, then hesitated. "I shouldn't have said that. I'm sorry."

Lewis ignored it. "In fact, the cooperation has been reasonably good, except for Rosenberg and Jensen. Justice Stone bitches a lot, but he listens to us."

"He bitches at everyone, so don't take it personally. Where do you suppose Jensen sneaks off to?"

Lewis glanced at one of his agents. "We have no idea."

A large section of the mob suddenly came together in one unrestrained chorus, and everyone on the streets seemed to join in. The Chief could not ignore it. The windows vibrated. He stood and called an end to this meeting.


JUSTICE GLENN JENSEN'S OFFICE was on the second floor, away from the streets and the noise. It was a spacious room, yet the smallest of the nine. Jensen was the youngest of the nine, and he was lucky to have an office. When nominated six years earlier at the age of forty-two, he was thought to be a strict constructionist with deep conservative beliefs, much like the man who nominated him. His Senate confirmation had been a slugfest. Before the Judiciary Committee, Jensen performed poorly. On sensitive issues he straddled the fence, and got kicked from both sides. The Republicans were embarrassed. The Democrats smelled blood. The President twisted arms until they broke, and Jensen was confirmed by one very reluctant vote.

But he made it, for life. In his six years, he had pleased no one. Hurt deeply by his confirmation hearings, he vowed to find compassion and rule with it. This had angered Republicans. They felt betrayed, especially when he discovered a latent passion for the rights of criminals. With scarce ideological strain, he quickly left the right, moved to the center, then to the left. Then, with legal scholars scratching their little goatees, Jensen would bolt back to the right and join Justice Sloan in one of his obnoxious antiwomen dissents. Jensen was not fond of women. He was neutral on prayer, skeptical of free speech, sympathetic to tax protestors, indifferent to Indians, afraid of blacks, tough on pornographers, soft on criminals, and fairly consistent in his protection of the environment. And, to the further dismay of the Republicans who shed blood to get him confirmed, Jensen had shown a troubling sympathy for the rights of homosexuals.

At his request, a nasty case called Dumond had been assigned to him. Ronald Dumond had lived with his male lover for eight years. They were a happy couple, totally devoted to each other, and quite content to share life's experiences. They wanted to marry, but Ohio laws prohibited such a union. Then the lover caught AIDS, and died a horrible death. Ronald knew exactly how to bury him, but then the lover's family intervened and excluded Ronald from the funeral and burial. Distraught, Ronald sued the family, claiming emotional and psychological damage. The case had bounced around the lower courts for six years, and now had suddenly found itself sitting on Jensen's desk.

At issue was the rights of "spouses" of gays. Dumond had become a battle cry for gay activists. The mere mention of Dumond had caused street fights.

And Jensen had the case. The door to his smaller office was closed. Jensen and his three clerks sat around the conference table. They had spent two hours on Dumond, and gone nowhere. They were tired of arguing. One clerk, a liberal from Cornell, wanted a broad pronouncement granting sweeping rights to gay partners. Jensen wanted this too, but was not ready to admit it. The other two clerks were skeptical. They knew, as did Jensen, that a majority of five would be impossible.

Talk turned to other matters.

"The Chief's ticked off at you, Glenn," said the clerk from Duke. They called him by his first name in chambers. "Justice" was such an awkward title.

Glenn rubbed his eyes. "What else is new?"

"One of his clerks wanted me to know that the Chief and the FBI are worried about your safety. Says you're not cooperating, and the Chief's rather disturbed. He wanted me to pass it along." Everything was passed along through the clerks' network. Everything.

"He's supposed to be worried. That's his job."

"He wants to assign two more Fibbies as bodyguards, and they want access to your apartment. And the FBI wants to drive you to and from work. And they want to restrict your travel."

"I've already heard this."

"Yeah, we know. But the Chief's clerk said the Chief wants us to prevail upon you to cooperate with the FBI so that they can save your life."

"I see."

"And so we're just prevailing upon you."

"Thanks. Go back to the network and tell the Chief's clerk that you not only prevailed upon me but you raised all sorts of hell with me and that I appreciated all of your prevailing and hell-raising, but it went in one ear and out the other. Tell them Glenn considers himself a big boy."

"Sure, Glenn. You're not afraid, are you?"

"Not in the least."