American history is largely a construction of the U.S. Supreme Court. Patriots loudly bray about democracy and the Constitution, but realists understand that the unelected judiciary is charged with interpreting the law of the land, and it is this body – appointed for life by the president (subject to Congressional approval) – that can effectively overturn the will of the legislature without recourse to public opinion or popularity.
Though the court has developed into a partisan organ every bit as divided as the U.S. populace at large, this wasn’t always the case. The Stanford Political Journal points out that in the years between 1801 and 1940, only two per cent of cases that reached the Supreme Court were decided by a five-to-four split; by the time of the Rehnquist and Roberts courts, that figure had jumped to 20 per cent, with every case involving justices voting in line with the party of the president who had nominated them.
This is the background for Toronto playwright Anton Piatigorsky’s debut novel, which focuses on a Supreme Court case involving a detainee at a fictional American-run prison in the Philippines. The complainant, an Egyptian named Majid Al-Tounsi, has been accused of providing funds to terrorist groups, and now finds himself locked away in the bowels of the shadowy U.S. naval base, without recourse to basic human rights guaranteed to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions or citizens under the American Constitution.
Piatigorsky – whose previous book, The Iron Bridge, was a collection of short stories that imagined the lives of historical dictators as adolescents – is unquestionably ambitious in his chosen conceits. The court case in the novel is loosely based on the 2008 SCOTUS decision in Boumediene v. Bush, which addressed legislation prohibiting enemy combatants from submitting an application for habeas corpus to a U.S. court. This material is thematically fraught and timely, especially given the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and concomitant fears of a crackdown on civil liberties among identifiable groups.
But the case that serves as the putative centre of the book is too frequently relegated to the background, so much so that it appears at times as little more than an afterthought. By contrast, Piatigorsky spends a great deal of time focusing on matters extraneous to the adjudication of the legal matter that lends the book its title. These include the confirmation hearing of a new justice, Emmanuel (Manny) Arroyo, nominated by the president (a George W. Bush stand-in named Mark Shaw) to replace a judge who died suddenly while playing tennis. Manny is himself embroiled in a relationship with Cassandra Sykes, the daughter of Rodney Sykes, another Supreme Court judge with whom Manny has a tortured history (he once compared Justice Sykes to Adolf Eichmann). Other jurists who take up valuable real estate in the novel include Killian Quinn, an ultra-conservative Catholic who is having an affair with a much younger woman; Gideon Rosen, who yearns to pen a decision with as much social and historical significance as those of his hero, Louis Brandeis; and Sarah Kolmann, a Jewish feminist whose husband has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Piatigorsky’s intention is plain: to throw back the curtain of judicial rectitude and display the messy humans working the switches in the shadows, and to demonstrate the ways in which the judges’ own moral codes inform their judicial practice (or show them to be utter hypocrites). So, for example, Justice Killian’s favourite Shakespearean play – Timon of Athens – is a distillation of his cynical personal philosophy: “The vast majority of people in the world really were fools at best, villains at worst, and even the wisest among them would happily defer to an idiot if he might get rich in doing so.” But his dialogue with his mistress about legislated morality is far too didactic, and displays an obviousness that Piatigorsky too often can’t resist succumbing to.
And much of the balance is incidental – from a New Year’s Eve dinner party at Justice Kolmann’s involving a long digression about the Torah to extended discursive (not to say legalistic) passages about the nature of personhood and the extent of executive power under U.S. law. The author is predisposed to long paragraphs (sometimes running as much as a page or more) that dissect specialized subjects in forensic detail: this may appeal to legal professionals, but it wears on a general reader.
If there is a central figure in the novel, it is Justice Sykes – an officious devotee of the law who battles not only his grief at the recent loss of his wife, but his fractious relationships with his daughter and journalist son, as well as the perception that his rise to the Supreme Court has more to do with his status as a black man than his judicial acumen. Significantly, it is Justice Sykes to whom Piatigorsky allows the only written decision in the titular case, a concurring opinion that offers an alternative to the conflict between the law and justice. Some may view Sykes’s end run as a cop-out, but it makes a certain amount of sense in the context of a novel that so assiduously sets up dualities between thorny moral imperatives. It’s a shame that its emotional effect is diluted by the volume of pages that precede it.