Legal Literature: Plot, Character, Action!

In an earlier chapter, Jack Abramoff leaves a Miami court in August.
In an earlier chapter, Jack Abramoff leaves a Miami court in August. (By Carlos Barria -- Reuters)
By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 4, 2006

From in or about 1994 to in or about 2004, defendant JACK A. ABRAMOFF was a Washington, D.C. lobbyist. In 1994, defendant ABRAMOFF joined a law and lobbying firm ("Firm A.") In January 2001, defendant ABRAMOFF joined a second law and lobbying firm ("Firm B") . . . .

As opening lines go, it isn't quite "Call me Ishmael," "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" or "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

But it is also a truth universally acknowledged that indictments, plea bargains and official legal documents are not to be mistaken for anything by Melville, Dickens or Austen.

Regardless, we take what we're given. And working without pride or prejudice, we take seriously yesterday's contribution to what has become Washington's hottest literary form: the charging document.

Recent sensations include the October indictment of "I. Lewis Libby, also known as 'Scooter Libby,' " in which the protagonist, "defendant Libby," "did knowingly and corruptly endeavor to influence and impede the due administration of justice, namely proceedings before Grand Jury 03-3. . . ."

Or the recent release from that legal literary hotbed, Travis County, Tex., where a grand jury alleged that "with the advice and consent of counsel, the defendant, Thomas Dale DeLay, did heretofore knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waive the application of Articles 12.01 and 12.03 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure to the indictment presented herein."

Has there ever been such a deluge of mass-consumed legalese in a condensed period? Indeed, this is a golden age for the turgid and stultifying, a wave of indictments, plea bargains and "informations" interspersed with three Supreme Court justice nominations in a five-month period, with all of the poetic briefs, memos and opinion-writing those can yield.

But today, we are focused on the Abramoff oeuvre. The lobbyist reached a plea bargain agreement with the Department of Justice, pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion. So yesterday's contribution to the canon was not an indictment per se, but rather a "criminal information" released by the department, followed by a plea bargain that was signed by Abramoff. Either way, same basic genre.

"There's been quite an evolution of indictments as a narrative in the time I've practiced law," says Scott Turow, a lawyer and best-selling novelist. Before, Turow says, "the indictment tended to be pretty bare bones."

"It's hardly literature," Turow acknowledges, although he had yet to read the Abramoff document. But it's all relative. There was a time when a prosecutor might have issued an indictment of, say, Libby, in two pages. Just lay out what he said to the grand jury and be done with it. Instead, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald did it in 22 pages. It was a public relations device, Turow says, widely quoted in the press.

"This is not the traditional straitjacket language of lawyers," Turow says. "There is a story being told. It might not read with the passion of Tolstoy. But there are moments when it can read like Hemingway."

The Abramoff document is rich with distinctive touches and the potential for character development. Not as rich as Abramoff in the best of times, but rich nonetheless. Consider:

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