Judicial discretion the John Grisham way

Review By Tom Vasaly    

0222-Judges-List-GrishamJohn Grisham, master of the legal thriller, reached an accommodation with his critics long ago. They stopped reviewing his books, and he stopped caring.1 His goal is to entertain, and he has greatly succeeded. Grisham holds the record for number of books that have topped the NY Times bestseller list.2 Many of his books have been made into well-received movies, includingThe Firm, The Rainmaker, A Time to Kill, and The Pelican Brief.3

The lead character in The Judge’s List is Lacy Stoltz, the director of the fictional Florida Board on Judicial Conduct. In real life, I held a similar position in Minnesota, so I was very interested. Lacy, nearing 40, works in an office with low morale and inadequate funding where most lawyers stay for only a couple of years and don’t bother returning from lunch on Fridays.

In contrast, in my decades of practice in the public sector, I have never worked in an office where the lawyers could do their jobs working only eight hours a day, let alone less than that. There was always plenty to do, and the work was interesting and important.

The Judge’s List is based on the relationship between Lacy and Jeri Crosby, the daughter of a law school professor who was murdered over 20 years earlier. The police have stopped investigating, but Jeri, based on obsessive research, has discovered a half-dozen other victims of the same killer, and she is convinced that she has found the killer as well—a Florida judge. Jeri is terrified of the judge but nevertheless driven in her quest for justice. She pesters Lacy to open an investigation. That’s not the kind of work a Judicial Board does, but Lacy gives in. 

This is not one of those detective stories where the private dick starts out on a two-bit case and eventually stumbles onto a big conspiracy involving the rich and powerful. Here, Jeri deposits the conspiracy on Lacy’s doorstep. Although the fictional Florida Judicial Board does not inform a judge of an investigation for 45 days, the judge finds out who is on his tail. The tension builds as Lacy and Jeri get closer and closer to a brilliant, methodical killer obsessed with eliminating anyone who has ever crossed him. The book is hard to put down. 

Unlike the fictional Florida board, the Minnesota board promptly notifies a judge when it opens an investigation. A judge would certainly find it disconcerting to learn that he or she was secretly being investigated. The Minnesota board has the authority to delay notifying the judge of an investigation, but this never occurred during my tenure.4 Of course, none of the complaints in Minnesota were against psychopathic serial killers, as far as I know.

Like all Grisham’s thrillers, The Judge’s List is very readable and doesn’t demand too much from the reader. The novel alludes to serious issues such as race but doesn’t explore them. Jeri is African American, but that has little impact on the story or how Jeri is presented. If you are looking for a different Grisham book to try out first, there are several that feature more prominently in the Grisham canon. One of the best is The Appeal, which deals intelligently with the problematic necessity of campaign contributions in judicial elections. In The Appeal, a corporation uses big money and smear tactics to sway a judicial election in order to obtain a favorable judge for the corporation’s case on appeal.5 

I thoroughly enjoyed The Judge’s List, and I recommend it to anyone in need of a break from the troubles of the world. 

Tom Vasaly is the former executive secretary of the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards. morino7@msn.com

1 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/17/books/john-grisham-judges-list.html?searchResultPosition=1

2 https://wordery.com/best-selling-books-by-year?awc=9106_1638471511_8e42ede3163354e579068769023474de&utm_source=AWIN&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_campaign=259915.

3 I exclude Grisham’s little-known Skipping Christmas (2001). The movie version, Christmas with the Kranks, is deemed by Rotten Tomatoes the second worst Christmas movie of all time. https://editorial.rottentomatoes.com/guide/worst-christmas-movies/

4 In Minnesota, when a meritorious complaint is received, Board staff reviews it, performs limited factual and legal research if necessary (e.g., a review of public case records), and presents an analysis to the Board. If the Board decides that the complaint should be investigated, the judge is promptly notified, unless the Board decides to “defer notice for specific reasons.” Minn. R. Board Jud. Stand. 6(d)(3). Although the Minnesota Board never delayed notifying the judge during my tenure, delayed notifications did occur several times before then. The Minnesota Judicial Board can also withhold the name of the complainant from a judge under investigation but again, this never occurred during my tenure. Minn. R. Board Jud. Stand. 6(d)(2)(iv).

5 As it happens, shortly after the publication of The Appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court issued Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U.S. 868 (2009), in which the Court thwarted a West Virginia coal baron’s use of similar tactics. Another Grisham book is The Whistler, in which he first introduces us to Lacy. There is no need to read The Whistler before the The Judge’s List. I plan on reading The Whistler next.