David Lat’s new novel Supreme Ambitions is an engrossing page-turner that focuses on the seemingly unlikely subject of federal judges and their law clerks. Every year, hundreds of recent elite law school graduates take relatively low-paying temporary jobs as law clerks for federal and state judges. These positions – especially those with the most prominent federal appellate judges – are very prestigious within the legal profession and often serve as stepping stones to later career success in academia, government, and private practice. Clerks for the most prominent lower court judges can aspire to clerk for justices of the federal Supreme Court. These much-coveted positions almost guarantee entry into the elite of the legal profession. In addition, law clerks often play an important role in researching and writing judicial opinions authored by their bosses. In this way, they sometimes have an impact on rulings that affect numerous people.
The role of law clerks in the judicial system is well known to scholars and legal insiders, but little understood by most Americans. Lat’s innovative book may well be the first attempt to write a popular novel about them. The main character is Audrey Coyne, an ambitious recent Yale Law School graduate who accepts a position clerking for Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge Christina Wong Stinson in the hope that it might lead to a Supreme Court clerkship. Judge Stinson is a prestigious “feeder judge” whose clerks often go on to clerk for Supreme Court justices. She is also clearly angling for appointment to the Supreme Court herself, and has few scruples about how she goes about getting it. Over the course, of the novel, Audrey, Judge Stinson, and other characters face dilemmas where their career ambitions clash with their obligations to the rule of law. As the novel effectively portrays, federal judges often have wide discretion in the way they decide important cases, and that discretion creates a variety of temptations – especially for those with “supreme ambitions.”
Lat’s book does a great job of vividly portraying the world in which it is set, perhaps because he has such extensive personal experience with it. Like Audrey Coyne, Lat is a graduate of Yale Law School who clerked for a prominent Ninth Circuit “feeder judge.” He is also the founder of the prominent Above the Law blog, and a well-known commentator on the inside world of federal judges and their staffs. Several characters in the story (though not Judge Stinson) are recognizably based on real-world federal judges, such as Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, for whom Volokh Conspiracy founder Eugene Volokh and many other prominent lawyers and legal scholars clerked.
Lat’s background as a blogger also influences the story. One character runs a blog focused on the federal judiciary that is clearly based on Lat’s own pre-ATL “Underneath their Robes” blog. Several real-world law blogs get mentioned in the book, including the Volokh Conspiracy. Blogs play a significant role in the plot, especially when some of the controversies surrounding Judge Stinson become a focus of public debate. This part of the book interestingly portrays the growing impact of the blogosphere on legal and political debate.
It is difficult for me to be completely objective about this book, because, like Lat, I too lived some of the experiences it portrays. Lat and I were contemporaries at Yale Law School (he was in the class ahead of me), and like him I clerked for a prominent federal court of appeals judge (though on the Fifth Circuit, not the Ninth). Like Audrey Coyne and other characters in Supreme Ambitions, I too hoped to clerk on the Supreme Court (in my case, it didn’t happen). Much of Lat’s portrayal of federal judges and law clerks rings true to me, based on personal experience and that of acquaintances. Lat also does a good job of conveying complex legal issues without getting bogged down in technical details or slowing down the plot. In a few cases, he is forced to present such information through awkward “info dumps.” But such problems are remarkably rare, considering the setting.
In some cases, the plot isn’t entirely realistic, perhaps because of the needs of artistic license. At one important turn, it comes as a revelation to the main characters that a federal court can “certify” the interpretation of an issue of state law to that state’s supreme court rather than decide it themselves. During my time on the Fifth Circuit, judges and clerks were well aware that this option was available, and the suggestion to use it would not have been considered a novel insight. More significantly, while many clerks for “feeder judges” really are gunning for Supreme Court clerkships, the degree of obsession with this goal portrayed in the book is extreme.
A few minor shortcomings notwithstanding, Supreme Ambitions is an impressive first novel, one of the best that has ever been written about the federal judiciary. It is a great read for anyone interested in the world of federal judges and their sometimes overly ambitious clerks.
UPDATE: Although it is likely that Lat’s book is the first popular novel focusing on court of appeals clerks, it is worth noting that Brad Meltzer’s 1997 book, The Tenth Justice, focuses on a main character who is a Supreme Court clerk [HT: Aaron Zelinsky].