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“You’re the fifteenth person I’ve interviewed from Yale. What makes you special?”
Charlotte Maine was ready for this question. She’d prepared an answer for it, just as she had for every question she might get asked during her interviews to clerk at the Supreme Court. She’d even reread every decision written by Justice Susan Russo, her first choice. Over a thousand applicants for thirty-six spots at the most prestigious job a young lawyer could get meant having to be perfect.
Only she wasn’t talking to Justice Russo. Instead, she was in one of the clerks’ offices. Benjamin Robeck looked more tired than a man in his late twenties should, though his Harvard smirk was firmly in place. Each of the Ivies had one, Charlotte had noticed during her years at Yale. She hadn’t figured out what each of the smirks meant, exactly, but she’d cataloged them all.
It was 10:02 a.m. on November 15. Charlotte wrote the date and time in precise block lettering in her notebook. Her shoulder-length brown hair was as neat as she could make it, and she was wearing her winter professional outfit: a black wool pantsuit with a soft cream sweater underneath. Charlotte sometimes had problems with fabrics; anything with a slight roughness distracted her. But the sweater was a bad choice for this warm building, and she was sweating.
“Don’t have an answer?” Benjamin said, his smirk increasing to Peak Harvard.
Charlotte molded her features into the Yale version. “I have an answer, but I’ll save it for Justice Russo.”
Harvard Benjamin threw back his head and laughed. “You’ve got balls. She’ll like that.”
Charlotte forced herself to smile.
There was a knock at the door followed by the entrance of a small man in his thirties. He wore a black suit and tie over a blue Oxford shirt. His pants were short enough that you could see that his dark blue socks had little red sailboats on them.
“The clock’s running on Jimenez,” he said in a reedy voice, handing Benjamin a memo.
“Any decision yet?” Benjamin asked.
“Waiting on the district court.”
“Virginia this time?”
“I’ll let her know.”
The man turned and left.
“Who was that?” Charlotte asked.
“The Death Clerk.”
Benjamin glanced at the memo. “The administrative clerk who handles death penalty cases. Each justice is responsible for a different circuit and when the Court has a death case, the justice in charge of that district has to run it. One of us”––he tapped himself on the chest––“has the task of keeping the Boss up to date and letting her know if she should vote to grant cert and issue a stay.”
“Cert” was short for certiorari, which meant deciding to take up the case. A “stay” was a temporary decision that maintained the status quo until the Court could decide the case. It was a thrill for Charlotte to hear these familiar terms in One First Street, knowing that the people who made these decisions were behind all the closed oak doors she’d passed on her way into Russo’s chambers.
“How long will it take to decide?” Charlotte asked.
“The death warrant expires at midnight, so they try to decide with enough time to still execute if it’s a no. Otherwise they have to start the prison protocols again. It’s going to be a busy day. You might have to wait around.”
Benjamin leaned forward. “Look, your application was one of my favorites. Your letters of recommendation were glowing, and I think the Boss will benefit from your perspective. I’m going to put you through to the next round. She’s probably going to ask you about this case.” He pushed the memo toward her. “Take this. Think of some good reasons why we should grant the stay. Think outside the box.”
Charlotte hesitated. She was a rule follower and Benjamin seemed to be breaking the rules.
“Don’t worry,” Benjamin said. “You’re allowed to have this. Besides, you’re going to be up against all kinds of people who got a leg up in one way or another.”
“You think this place is a meritocracy?” Benjamin rolled his eyes. “We’ve got a bunch of red-flagged applications, especially in the Chief’s chambers.”
“Is that bad?”
“It’s people with pull who don’t have to pre-interview with the existing clerks. They go right to the top. Lots of people have advantages here, is all I’m saying.” Benjamin pushed the memo her way again and, this time, she folded it neatly into a square and put it in her purse.
“No problem.” Benjamin leaned back in his chair. “We need some different points of view around here, you know what I mean?”
Charlotte felt her hopes shrinking. What had her letters of recommendation disclosed? She didn’t want to represent the different point of view. She wanted to fit in. But that was her role in life. “You’re so . . . different, Charlotte!” her mother had said so many times when she was little that she thought that was her name for a while. Different Charlotte.
“Sure.” She slapped her confident smirk on again. “Of course.”
Half an hour later, Charlotte was in the marble-clad hall facing Justice Russo’s chambers reading the memo Benjamin had given her for the second time. The high-ceilinged walls around her were filled with a riot of children’s art and pictures of Justice Russo with various dignitaries.
The facts were laid out starkly in Benjamin’s memo:
On March 2, 2010, Marco Jimenez kidnapped, raped, and killed Candice Simon, a young mother. Her body was found three weeks later. Jimenez was apprehended driving the victim’s car, and his DNA was matched to the semen found in her body. Jimenez was convicted and sentenced to death. While on death row, Jimenez was beaten by a guard and suffered a severe head injury. When he recovered, he had no memory of anything prior to waking up in the prison hospital. He now goes by the name Jimmy and has become a model prisoner, often counseling other inmates on how to adapt to being incarcerated.
Charlotte shuddered and started looking up cases on her phone.
“This seat taken?” a nervous-looking guy around Charlotte’s age—27—asked.
He sat down. He was holding a brown leather attaché case and looked vaguely familiar.
“Duncan Anderson,” he said, thrusting out his hand.
It connected. They were in an LSAT prep class together four years ago.
“Charlotte Maine,” she said, without holding out her own hand. “We’ve met.”
“We have?” Duncan let his hand drop. He had straight black hair that flopped over his forehead and watery blue eyes that seemed a bit unfocused.
“Yale,” Charlotte said. “LSAT prep.”
“Oh, right. That was a long time ago, huh?”
Four years and three months. “Sure.”
“You waiting for your interview with Russo?” Duncan asked.
“Justice Russo. Yes.”
“I guess everything’s delayed because of this death case.”
“That’s what they said.”
Duncan tugged at his dark red tie. “Bad luck.”
“To have our interviews scheduled on a death day.”
“It certainly is bad luck for Mr. Jimenez.”
Duncan shot her a look. “You think they should grant the stay?”
Charlotte was about to give a technical answer but stopped herself. There was no point in giving an advantage to this Duncan character who, if Charlotte remembered correctly, was involved in some Skull and Bones shenanigans while on campus and generally acted like a Class A jerk.
“I don’t believe in capital punishment,” Charlotte said.
Duncan looked incredulous. “Like, as a blanket position?”
“Aren’t you against it?”
Charlotte glanced toward the door of Justice Russo’s chambers. The judge was famously anti-death penalty. She’d even argued two of the seminal death penalty cases before she’d been named to the bench.
“I’m mostly against it.”
“How can you mostly be against it?”
Duncan shrugged. “I’m against it in principle. But take this Gonzalez guy.”
“You mean Jimenez?”
“Yeah, him. He did horrible things to that woman. I mean, I don’t even like to say them out loud. So, if he gets the lethal cocktail, well . . . I’m not going to shed any tears about it, you know?”
Heat spread up Charlotte’s neck. “What about his brain injury?”
“Irrelevant in my view.”
“Is that what you’re going to tell the justice?” Charlotte asked.
“Why do you want to clerk for Justice Russo if you feel that way?”
“I applied to everyone, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but . . .”
“Ah, I see. You care who you clerk for.” Duncan reached out and patted Charlotte on the hand in a way that made her recoil. “Hope that works out for you.”
Charlotte pulled her hand away and wiped it on the underside of her skirt. “It will.”
Gabriel Martinez had been preparing for this day for a long time. At thirty, he was older than most of the other applicants—just by a few years, but it was a difference he felt even when he was studying law after his stint in the Army. He wasn’t interested in house parties and pub nights; he’d gone to Stanford Law to work hard and succeed, and that’s what he was doing during his clerkship on the Fourth Circuit, even though he’d ended up working for a liberal judge with whom he rarely agreed. Gabriel was proud of the fact that he’d gotten Judge Kelley to move on certain issues, a fact he planned on bringing up with the Chief Justice.
“So, piece of advice,” Andrew Rodriguez said. It was noon and Andrew, one of the Chief’s clerks, had suggested they get a sandwich in the cafeteria. They were standing at the counter, surveying the meager choices.
“Don’t get the tuna melt?”
Andrew laughed. “That too. I meant about the Chief. And really, everything is terrible in here, so . . .”
Gabriel grabbed a sketchy-looking sandwich wrapped in cellophane. They paid and sat down at one of the small tables along the back wall. The room was empty except for the women working behind the counter.
Andrew ripped the cellophane off his sandwich and bit into the bread with gusto. He’d clerked for Judge Kelley, too, and had been known around the office to be a bit cutthroat, a trait that Gabriel had no problem with. Andrew’s almost-military haircut was similar to Gabriel’s—he’d done ROTC, then the Army, too. In their dark suits, they almost looked like brothers.
“What did you want to tell me?” Gabriel asked.
Andrew put his sandwich down and looked around. They were still alone. “Look, I’m the Chief’s favorite clerk, okay? I wear the Gold Star around the office.”
Gabriel knew better than to ask if there was a literal gold star. “Okay.”
“So, he’s probably going to take my recommendations into account when he makes his decision.”
Gabriel flexed his hands in his lap. What did this guy want from him?
“And I’m going to be recommending you,” Andrew said as if bestowing a favor.
“No problem. I look out for my own.”
Gabriel bristled. He didn’t want to be anyone’s affirmative action project, even if they were both Latino.
“So,” Andrew continued. “Don’t get too ‘law, law, law’ with the Chief. He likes to get to know his clerks on a personal level.”
“You know there’s a death case today, yes?”
“Yeah, Jimenez. That’s coming up through the Fourth Circuit,” Gabriel said.
“No chance of getting a stay in your court?”
“I prepped Kelley on it last week. He certainly won’t be granting a stay.”
“That’s too bad,” Andrew said. “Death cases upset the Chief.”
“I don’t see anything that would interest the Court in this particular case.”
“Tell him that if it comes up. I assume you run?”
“No buts. Just say yes enthusiastically when he asks.”
“There is one problem, though,” Andrew said.
Andrew pulled out his phone and showed it to Gabriel. “You know who this is?”
He glanced at the shot of the daughter of a famous actress and her boyfriend on People.com. “Jack Kerridge?”
“What am I missing?”
“John Kerridge III, son of Senator Kerridge, who happens to be buddies with the Chief. He’s interviewing with the Chief today.”
Gabriel pushed his sandwich away. “Is he a good candidate?”
“In my opinion, no. But my opinion doesn’t matter on this one. Look.” Andrew put away his phone. “There are only two spots left. The Chief likes to balance things out so I’m guessing he’s leaning toward hiring one of the women.”
Gabriel’s stomach clenched. “Which leaves me out.”
“Which leaves you having to get everything right. Can you do that?”
It was almost one in the afternoon before Charlotte got called into her interview with Ada Hall, another Russo clerk. Ada was the kind of naturally pretty put-together girl that always made Charlotte feel as if she was ten pounds too heavy and her blue eyes were set too close together.
“Are you good at organization?” Ada asked as she pushed her tortoiseshell glasses up onto her head, using them as a kind of headband. “Organization is crucial to the Boss.”
“I’m very organized.”
“Sure, a lot of people say that, but they aren’t really, you know?”
Charlotte pulled her day planner out of her bag. She flipped to a random page. Ada stared at the rainbow of color. “All items marked in blue are bench memos that are due next week,” Charlotte said. “Green means opinions due in two weeks. Red means memos or opinions due the week in question. Orange is for meetings.”
“Have you ever missed a deadline?”
“And what about secrecy? You know you can’t discuss the Court’s business outside the building, yes?”
“That goes without saying.”
“And what if . . . What if your justice asked you to do something . . . not illegal, exactly, but what some might consider unethical?”
Charlotte’s stomach constricted. “Could you give me an example for context?”
Ada looked down at her fingernails, checking for imperfections that weren’t there. “This is a competitive place. Sometimes it’s important to know what other chambers are up to. Where a justice is leaning. Or you might learn something about the Boss that isn’t generally known. That must’ve happened with the judge you’re clerking for now, right?”
It was true. Charlotte knew all kinds of things about her current boss, a man who’d seemed destined for the Supreme Court until the political winds shifted right. She wrote all his opinions, for one, which wasn’t that unusual. Except he never changed a word in any of them. She was certain he never even read them.
“Yes, that’s true.”
“And you wouldn’t tell me any of those things, would you?”
“No, of course not.”
“Right. So—” The messenger app on Ada’s computer dinged. She glanced at her screen, then stood up. “Could you give me a moment?”
Ada sprang past Charlotte and opened the door. The Death Clerk was outside, talking to Benjamin. The Death Clerk’s tie was pulled away from his neck and his shirt had come untucked from his pants. Only now his shirt was white, when Charlotte could’ve sworn it was blue earlier.
Charlotte tried to puzzle out what they were saying, but they were speaking in low tones. Some development in the Jimenez case. But what? Charlotte leaned forward to get a better look at Ada’s screen. 9-1-1, the message read, Circuit Court denies stay. T minus 11 hours.
Charlotte felt a clock starting in her own head, her shoulders tensing.
If the Court didn’t stop it, Marco Jimenez would be dead by midnight.
As he sat in the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court’s office, Jack Kerridge was feeling uncharacteristically nervous.
He’d met Thomas Maxwell before, but those had been during social occasions like his parents’ annual Christmas party. Being the son of a senator meant that Jack was used to being around powerful people. Once they were a couple of drinks in, they took on a veneer of sameness, and lost their power to impress. But now with Maxwell sitting behind his desk framed by large bulletproof windows in a thick-carpeted room that looked like something from the set of The West Wing, he felt intimidated.
“You’ve done well, son,” the Chief said, flipping through a file on his desk, then closing it. He was tall and trim, his once-black hair now mostly white. His desk was empty of any other papers, though there was a large collection of silver frames featuring his wife, adult kids, and a flock of grandchildren. And not those staged, professional shots his mother had always insisted on when he was growing up, but real family moments. Laughing. “We know this interview is just a formality. Your father’s an old friend and you’ve got the bona fides to be here, but . . .”
“Frankly, son, I’ve heard some things. Seen some . . . things in the paper that are not what I want associated with this office. This is the Supreme Court of the United States, and I take my role as Chief Justice very seriously, do you understand?”
Jack knew what he meant. The partying he did in college, that stupid costume he’d worn on a dare to a frat party. The girls he’d hung out with before Emily, the ones who only fucked him because of his name. He hadn’t cared then, but he was ashamed now that he was in a real relationship.
“I can assure you, sir, that I’ve put all that behind me. I’m not sure my father told you—”
“About your engagement? Yes. An actress, I believe?”
“No, sir. That’s Emily’s mother, Carol Lund. Emily was top of her MBA class at Yale, and she’s working in my father’s office.”
“She have political plans?”
“She might, yes.”
The Chief nodded as he cleaned his wireless glasses with a cloth that he removed carefully from a drawer. There wasn’t even a computer on his desk, only an inkwell. Maxwell was a Luddite who wrote his opinions by hand.
The Chief trained his dark brown eyes on Jack. “And you, Jack? What are your plans?”
“I want to clerk at the Court.”
Jack smiled, oozing every ounce of charm he had into the gesture. “I was hoping you could help counsel me on that, sir.”
The Chief rose, smiling, and came around his desk. He held out his hand. “Welcome aboard.”
Odessa Jones recognized Jack Kerridge the moment he walked out of the Chief’s office. His pale skin, black hair, green eyes, and thin frame were objectively attractive, but Odessa didn’t care for his prototypical WASP look.
Figures, she thought. White privilege on steroids. He probably waltzed right in and bypassed the pre-interviews. And judging by the expression on his face, he’d been offered the job.
That meant there was only one spot left now. A spot she wanted very badly.
“Pardon?” Jack said. “Did you say something?”
Odessa had meant to say that in her head. Oh, well. “Nope.”
“I could’ve sworn . . .” Jack was giving her the look a lot of men did. An appraisal. It was something Odessa disliked in the best of circumstances, and she certainly didn’t need it today. Not from the guy who’d probably just taken her spot.
“Move along,” she said, annoyed that he was lingering.
Jack smirked as he raised his hands in surrender. “Moving.”
An assistant poked her head out the door. “Ms. Jones? The Chief will see you now.”
Odessa rose, her knees popping. Her arthritis always acted up when she had to sit in one place for too long. She buried the wince behind a pleasing smile and squared her shoulders.
“Good luck,” Jack said, still smirking as she passed him.
“Shut it,” she muttered.
Odessa followed the Chief’s assistant into the office. Maxwell was sitting on the edge of his desk, holding a file folder.
“Ms. Jones? Come in, come in. Sit down.”
Odessa sat in the chair in front of him, perching on the edge, her back erect.
“You’re quite an impressive young lady,” the Chief said. “Four years at the Columbus City Ballet School, Harvard salutatorian, then top of your class at Harvard Law, your pick of clerkships. And I’ve heard great things from Judge Simons. ‘Finest clerk I’ve had in my ten years on the bench,’ he says. Remarkable.”
“You’ve heard we have a death case running today?”
“I have, unfortunately.”
“Yes. It’s a nasty business.”
“Well, aren’t you in favor of the death penalty, sir?”
The Chief gave her a sad smile. “No one can be in favor of the death of another man.”
Odessa knew she should leave it there, but she felt compelled to say something more. “But—”
“But my decisions in Samuels, etc.”
The Chief frowned. “The constitution permits the death penalty. And if a state wants to inflict the ultimate punishment on a man who chooses to take the life of another, then it’s not our role to interfere. Don’t you agree?”
Odessa felt the heat rise in her face. She was blowing this interview, but she couldn’t stop now. “No, sir, I don’t.”
“I think it’s wrong for the state to kill another person, no matter what they’ve done. The state is supposed to be above the citizen, to be better than, not to abase itself to the common denominator. And while the death penalty might have made a certain sense two hundred years ago, surely we’ve evolved since then, and we can punish and rehabilitate and dissuade without stooping to state-sanctioned murder.”
“You feel strongly about it.”
“I thought you might bring up racial bias in sentencing.”
Odessa kept her features even. She was used to people assuming certain things about her because she was black. “That’s also a problem. But even if it was meted out in an even-handed way, I’d be opposed.”
“I believe you.” The Chief smiled broadly and Odessa relaxed. She’d heard that he didn’t like getting into the merits of cases during interviews, but maybe that was how he acted when he wasn’t interested.
“So, given your views, why my chambers?” the Chief asked.
“I’m sorry, sir?”
“I’m sure any of my fellow liberal justices would be happy to have you as their clerk,” the Chief said. “Justice Russo, perhaps. Or my good man Thompson. Why me?”
“Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve wanted the best,” Odessa said earnestly. “I ask the best of myself, and those are the environments I seek out. And I believe that’s what this chamber is. I might not agree with every decision you’ve rendered, but I respect our differences. And most of all, I know you believe in the system, the Court, its role. You lead the Court. I want to help you do that.”
“Excellent, excellent,” the Chief said. “I only have one last question for you.”
“Do you run?”
“I enjoy a brisk run three mornings a week and it’s important to me for my clerks to join me sometimes. Some of my best thinking happens out there on the Mall or in Rock Creek Park.”
“Of course. You’re an athlete.”
Was, Odessa thought. “It would be an honor to join you on your runs, sir.”
He stood and reached out his hand. “Around here, people call me Chief.”
David Chung wasn’t happy when the knock came on the door to Justice Russo’s office. He was in the middle of a—if he did say so himself—well-crafted answer to the justice’s question about what he considered her most important opinion to be. It was Odessa’s answer, actually, the one they’d worked on together, but he knew she wouldn’t mind.
“Come in,” Justice Russo said. She tucked a stray strand of hair that had escaped her brown chignon into place. Everything about her was neat and precise, and her unlined face looked younger than seventy.
A dark-haired man in his thirties entered. His suit was rumpled, and he was wearing a light pink dress shirt that still had the dry-cleaning folds in it. “The Court of Appeals has refused to hear the case.”
“So, it’s up to us then?”
The man nodded. “The Chief wanted me to tell you that the conference has been set for seven.”
Justice Russo glanced at the slim gold watch on her wrist. “Three hours?”
“Understood. Where’s Benjamin?”
“In his office, last time I saw him.”
The man withdrew. Justice Russo stared out the window. The earlier rain had stopped, and the sun was shining weakly through the clouds. “David, will you walk with me?”
“You can call me Justice Russo. I’m not the Queen.”
“Yes . . . Justice.”
She stood and moved toward the door and David rose to follow her. In a few short moments they were in Benjamin’s office. It smelled of body odor and stale coffee, and Benjamin was typing furiously.
Justice Russo tapped him on the shoulder. He jumped, then spun around to stand almost at attention.
“The Court of Appeals denied a stay. You’ve got till six. Conference is at seven.”
“Have you heard anything on where the other chambers are leaning?”
“Ada’s trying to get some intel. Nothing yet.”
“Good. Get back to work.”
Benjamin sat back down, and Justice Russo summoned David out of the office. She stopped near one of her assistants’ desks.
“Tell me, David. What do you think of the death penalty?”
“This court doesn’t believe that. Nor did the Founding Fathers.”
“I don’t think either of us would be standing here if it was up to the Founding Fathers.”
She smiled. “True. Have you been following the Jimenez case?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And what is your view?”
David flipped through the mental index cards he and Odessa had worked on, but he drew a blank. There were at least ten death penalty cases she could be referring to. “It’s a novel question,” he said, grasping at straws. “I think the court should take it up.”
He looked at Justice Russo. The warmth he sensed in her a minute ago had faded.
“Thank you so much for your time.” She shook his hand briskly. “Can you find your way out?”
Gabriel’s interview with the Chief was going well. They’d steered clear of legal topics, and ended up speaking about Gabriel’s aunt Rosa, who had bought a classic row house a twenty-minute walk away in Capitol Hill more than thirty years ago, long before its gentrification.
“That’s a beautiful church,” the Chief said, when Gabriel mentioned that they always attended St. Peter’s when he stayed with her.
The Chief glanced at the clock. It was a quarter to five. “It’s been a real pleasure meeting you. I have one last question for you. Are you a running man?”
“Yes, sir. Five miles every morning.”
He eyed Gabriel’s thin but muscular frame. “And you look like it, too. Excellent, excellent. Keep it up. I’m sure you’ll go far in life.”
Gabriel stood up and shook the Chief’s hand.
“We’ll be in touch,” the Chief said.
Gabriel attempted a smile but didn’t quite make it. The Chief was famous for extending his offers right there in the interview. If he was going to be “in touch” it was to tell him that he didn’t have the job. Despite everything, all his preparation, he hadn’t made it. And he knew who was responsible.
Charlotte had eaten two granola bars during her vigil on the bench outside Justice Russo’s office, but she was still hungry. She watched the time on her phone change to 5:00 p.m., and still no one had come to fetch her.
Should she knock on the door and remind them she was there? Perhaps they’d forgotten about her. Charlotte wished there was some way she could be sure what to do.
She felt a shadow crossing over her and then