Supreme Court Associate Justice J. Mortimer Brinnin’s deteriorating mental condition had been the subject of talk for some months now, but when he showed up for oral argument with his ears wrapped in aluminum foil, the consensus was that the time had finally come for him to retire. Thank God, his fellow justices agreed --- unanimously, for once --- cameras weren’t allowed in the Court.
Brinnin was a distinguished jurist who had cast some of the most consequential votes of his day. But the sun had now (emphatically) set on that day. His mind, once capable of quoting entire opinions as far back as the nineteenth century, in toto and verbatim, was now succumbing to medication (for persistent sciatica) and increasingly copious evening martinis. He had taken to summoning his clerks in the middle of the night to tell them that there were moray eels in the toilet. On another occasion, also at three a.m., he met them at the front door holding a bag of kitchen garbage and instructed them that they must get it to Omaha --- without delay. (Justice Brinnin had grown up there.) It was when Justice Brinnin became convinced that the ghost of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was whispering in his ears trying to influence his vote that he reached for the aluminum foil.
Chief Justice Declan Hardwether, who was himself going through a rough patch at the time, found the situation embarrassing. He was not by nature a confrontational man and so was at pains what to do. None of the other justices, who were, at any rate, hardly speaking to one another, wanted to intervene. So the CJ turned to the den-motherly Justice Paige Plympton.
“You’ve got to do something,” he pleaded, “before he shows up dressed like the Tin Man, singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ ”
Justice Plympton dealt with the situation with her usual grace and gentle persuasiveness. And when that didn’t work, she assembled Justice Brinnin’s children in a conference call intervention.
In due course, the Marshal of the Court hand-delivered Justice Brinnin’s letter of resignation to the White House. The news was duly announced. Nothing raises the national temperature more than a VACANCY sign hanging from the colonnaded front of the Supreme Court.
PRESIDENT VANDERDAMP was not at the time riding a tidal wave of popularity. His approval ratings were, in fact, abysmal, though his press secretary was always quick to stress that they were in “the high twenties.”
Donald P. Vanderdamp had been elected two and a half years ago in a three-way race that included a hedge-fund billionaire who spent $350 million of his own money. Vanderdamp squeaked across the finish line with two electoral votes to spare. He had run on a platform of “changing the way Washington does business.”
Everyone who runs for president says they are going to change the way Washington does business. The surprise was that Donald P. Vanderdamp, former Eagle Scout, naval officer, mayor, governor, affable, decent, churchgoing, family-oriented, golden retriever–owning midwesterner, actually meant it. He was sixty-four years old and, as one waspish pundit put it, “fast approaching retirement age, and not a minute too soon.” He was physically unremarkable in an Eisenhowerish sort of way: balding, trim, pleasant-looking but with the quietly commanding look of, say, an airline pilot or high school principal. Some people fill a room. Not Donald P. Vanderdamp. His blandness --- what another pundit had called his “ineffable Donald-ness” --- had served him well over the years. It invited underestimation. People tittered at his great passion and hobby --- bowling.
Faced with a national debt mind-boggling even by Washington standards, Donald P. Vanderdamp had rolled up his shirtsleeves on his first day in office, unscrewed the cap of the presidential veto pen, and gone to work. He wrote No on every spending bill that the Congress sent to his desk.
He was determined to bring order to the nation’s books. So far, he had vetoed 185 spending bills, acquiring the nickname “Don Veto.” It was an incongruent term, given his total lack of Italianate qualities. Donald P. Vanderdamp was paradigmatically nonethnic, as middle American as sliced white bread. (Excellent with peanut butter and jelly but not much else.) But as Don Veto he had evolved into the sworn enemy of the majority of the United States Congress, whose members understand that their main job, their highest calling, their truest democratic function, is to take money from other states and funnel it to their own. What greater homage to the Founding Fathers and the men who froze at Valley Forge could there be than a civic center in Tulsa paid for by the taxpayers of Massachusetts?
Nominating someone to the Supreme Court can be hard enough for a popular president. For one at the opposite end of the likability spectrum, it presents a daunting challenge, as well as a delicious opportunity for the chief bouncer at the rope line in front of the Supreme Court entryway: the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The current occupant of that powerful chair was a man named Dexter Mitchell, senator from the great state of Connecticut. Dexter Mitchell despised Donald P. Vanderdamp, though he was always careful, in his public statements, to say that he had “the greatest respect” for him. He despised him for a variety --- or as they say in Washington, “multiplicity” --- of reasons. He despised him because he had vetoed S. 322, a bill Mitchell had sponsored that would have required every helicopter rotor blade in the U.S. military to be made in his home state of Connecticut. And he despised Donald P. Vanderdamp for ignoring his suggestion that he appoint him to fill the Brinnin vacancy on the high court. (More about that in due course.)
President Vanderdamp’s first nominee to succeed Brinnin was a distinguished appellate judge named Cooney. Enormous care had gone into his selection, knowing that Senator Mitchell’s Judiciary Committee was preparing an auto-da-fé that would have made the Spanish Inquisition blush. Cooney was a jurist of impeccable credentials. Indeed, he seemed to have been put on earth precisely for the purpose of one day becoming a justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Senator Mitchell’s Judiciary Committee staff investigators were known on Capitol Hill as the Wraith Riders, after the relentless, spectral, horse-mounted pursuers of hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. It was said in hushed tones on Capitol Hill that the Wraith Riders could find something on anyone: could make it look like Mother Teresa had run a whorehouse in Calcutta; that St. Thomas More had been having it off with Catherine of Aragon; or that Dr. Albert Schweitzer had conducted ghastly live medical experiments on helpless, unanesthetized African children on behalf of Belgian drug companies.
However, faced with the blemishless Judge Cooney, the Wraith Riders were left to whinny there was nothing with which to hang him, not even an unpaid parking ticket. He was an exemplar of every judicial virtue. Not one of his decisions had been overturned by a higher court. As for his personal life, he was so reasonable and wise that he made Socrates sound like a raving, bipolar crank.
Dig deeper, Senator Mitchell told the Wraith Riders. Or dig your own graves. Off they rode, shrieking.
And so, on day two of the Cooney hearings, Senator Mitchell, smiling pleasantly as usual, began: “Judge Cooney, you are, I take it, familiar with the film To Kill a Mockingbird?”
Judge Cooney answered yes, he was pretty sure he’d seen it, back in grade school.
“Is there anything about that you’d care to . . . tell the Committee?”
Judge Cooney looked perplexed. Tell? He wasn’t quite sure he understood the question.
Senator Mitchell held up a piece of paper as if mere physical contact with it might forever contaminate his fingers.
“Do you recognize this document?”
Not from this distance, Judge Cooney replied, now thoroughly perplexed.
“Then let me refresh your memory,” Senator Mitchell said. The vast audience watching the proceedings held its breath, wondering what radioactive material Senator Mitchell had unearthed to incriminate this spotless nominee. It turned out to be a review of the movie that the twelve-year-old Cooney had written for The Beaverboard, his elementary school newspaper. “ ‘Though the picture is overall OK,’ ” Senator Mitchell quoted, “ ‘it’s also kind of boring in other parts.’ ”
Senator Mitchell looked up, took off his glasses, paused as if fighting back tears, nodded philosophically, and said, “Tell us, Judge, which parts of To Kill a Mockingbird did you find quote-unquote boring?”
In his concluding statement several grueling days later, Senator Mitchell said in a more-in-sadness-than-in-anger tone that he could “not in good conscience bring myself to vote for someone who might well show up at the Court on the first Monday of October wearing not black judicial robes but the white uniform of the Ku Klux Klan.”
And that was the end of Judge Cooney. The chairman of the Judiciary Committee issued a statement politely inviting the White House to “send us a nominee we can all agree on.”
PRESIDENT DONALD P. VANDERDAMP repressed the temptation to storm up Pennsylvania Avenue and insert Senator Mitchell’s microphone in an orifice not specifically designed for such purposes, swallowed what was left of his pride, and instructed his staff to find another Supreme Court nominee, preferably one who hadn’t written movie reviews for his elementary school newspaper. In due course, he put forward nomineee number two, a New York State Court of Appeals judge named Burrows.
Judge Burrows had credentials that would entitle him to the E-ZPass lane at the Pearly Gates. Again, the Wraith Riders returned from their exhumations shrieking helplessly. Burrows’s after-hours hobby --- his hobby --- was providing pro bono legal counseling to inmates at the state penitentiary. He had lost a leg ejecting from his F-4 fighter plane over Vietnam. None of his rulings had been overturned. His wife was a Vietnamese refugee. They had adopted two Rwandan orphans.
Senator Mitchell, studying his dossier, furrowed his brow. No, this would not be easy. The Wraith Riders whinnied forth again and this time did not return with empty claws. A woman had been located who had dated Burrows when he was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. Senator Mitchell smiled and dispensed lumps of sugar to the Riders.
“Judge Burrows,” Senator Mitchell said, “does the name [such and such] mean anything to you?”
Judge Burrows calmly but coolly returned the senator’s gaze and said that he hardly thought that had anything to do with anything.
“Perhaps we should be the --- pardon the expression --- judges of that,” Senator Mitchell just as coolly replied. After a few more questions he had grudgingly elicited that Judge Burrows had indeed dated Ms. Such-and-Such back then; further, that at one point she thought she might have become pregnant.
Again the room hushed.
“Judge Burrows,” he said, “and I really do hate having to ask these questions, but it is my job . . . is it true that you tried to talk Ms. Sinclair out of having an abortion?”
No, Judge Burrows replied. Not at all. But he had offered to do the honorable thing and marry her and raise the child. And then it turned out that she wasn’t pregnant after all.
The next day Senator Mitchell announced that he could not, in good conscience, vote to approve someone so “maniacally” opposed to a woman’s right to choose, as enshrined in Roe v. Wade.
And so ended Judge Burrows’s brief Supreme Court career.
That afternoon the normally placid-faced President Donald P. Vanderdamp strode to the helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House looking, as one reporter commented, “like he was ready to bite the head off a live chicken.” He did not throw the crowd his customary wave. Even the presidential golden retriever, Dwight, a friendly, pattable hound, looked eager to sink his fangs into the nearest shin.
MORE THAN SEVERAL HISTORIANS of the Vanderdamp presidency have speculated that the events that followed might very well not have taken place if the President had not chanced to turn on the television late that Friday night at Camp David, the presidential retreat. But turn it on he did. Rarely has channel-surfing been so consequential.
In an oral history on deposit at the Vanderdamp Presidential Library in Wapakoneta, Ohio, President Vanderdamp relates that he was simply trying to find the Bowling Channel that night. He was not a guileful person, so there is no reason not to believe him. Apart from the news shows and the bowling, he was not a big watcher of television, preferring crossword puzzles and murder mysteries. He claims never to have watched Courtroom Six before or ever to have heard of it, though it was one of TV’s top ten-rated shows.
At any rate, that Friday night found the President at his retreat in the Cactoctin Mountains, alone in bed with a bowl of Graeter’s black raspberry chip ice cream --- an Ohioan delicacy --- and the faithful hound, Dwight. The First Lady was being honored for raising awareness of a disease at a dinner in New York. Fuming over the Burrows fiasco while clicking his way through the cable channels in search of a decent bowling tournament, the President happened upon Courtroom Six. The rest is, as they say, history.
The episode he came upon was the one involving the ex-wife who, seeking revenge on her ex-husband for what she considered an inequitable distribution of assets, had snuck into his wine cellar while he was away and opened hundreds of bottles of prized Bordeaux wines --- by hand, one by one --- replacing the wine with diet grape juice; then recorking and resealing them. It’s one of Courtroom Six’s more well-known cases. As the wife is being sworn in by the clerk, she raises a hand ostentatiously encased in an orthopedic brace.
“May I ask,” Judge Cartwright, presiding, asks, “what’s the deal with the hand?”
“Carpal tunnel, Your Honor.”
Judge Cartwright, barely suppressing a grin, says, “The jury will disregard the defendant’s remark.”
“Objection,” says the prosecutor. “Grounds, Your Honor?”
“I don’t know.” Judge Cartwright shrugs. “But I’ll think of something.”
President Vanderdamp’s finger, poised on the channel button to keep on flicking, stayed. He found himself, along with millions of other Americans, entertained and captivated. He watched the entire show. He found himself quite taken by the charm and sassy style --- to say nothing of the good looks --- of Judge Pepper Cartwright.
“Pepper?” the President said aloud to himself, musing. “What sort of name is that for a judge?”
Dwight lifted his head off the pillow next to the President’s and cocked an ear in hopes of discerning syllabic similarity between the words being spoken and “biscuit.”
President Vanderdamp was not an imperious --- much less imperial --- president, one to summon the staff at late hours with urgent requests. When he walked Dwight on the White House grounds, he cleaned up after him himself. He had once ordered a (richly deserved) B-2 bomb strike in the middle of night, mainly because he did not want to disturb his elderly secretary of defense, who had just had another prostate operation and needed his sleep.
Now he reached for the presidential laptop, a computer of truly dazzling capability, and Googled Judge Pepper Cartwright and Courtroom Six. He stayed up well past his normal bedtime.
THE NEXT MORNING at breakfast he asked the steward, “Jackson, have you ever seen a TV show called Courtroom Six?”
“What do you think of it?”
“Watch it every chance I get, sir.”
“What do you think of the judge --- Judge Pepper?”
“Oh,” Jackson smiled, not servant to president, but man to man, “I like her a whole lot, sir. She’s a smart lady. She hands it out good. And she’s awful . . .”
“Go ahead, Jackson.”
Jackson grinned. “Awful easy on the eyes.”
“Thank you, Jackson.”
“Another waffle, sir? Griddle’s still hot.”
“Yes,” the President said. “I think I will. But Jackson --- not a word to the First Lady.”
“Oh, no, sir.”
Excerpted from SUPREME COURTSHIP © Copyright 2011 by Christopher Buckley. Reprinted with permission by Twelve. All rights reserved.