The Advocate’s Daughter
by Anthony Franze
on Tour April 2016
* * *
Among Washington D.C. power players, everyone has secrets they desperately want to keep hidden, including Sean Serrat, a Supreme Court lawyer. Sean transformed his misspent youth into a model adulthood, and now has one of the most respected legal careers in the country. But just as he learns he’s on the short list to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, his daughter, Abby, a talented and dedicated law student, goes missing. Abby’s lifeless body is soon found in the library of the Supreme Court, and her boyfriend, Malik Montgomery, a law clerk at the high court, is immediately arrested. The ensuing media frenzy leads to allegations that Malik’s arrest was racially motivated, sparking a national controversy.
While the Serrat family works through their grief, Sean begins to suspect the authorities arrested the wrong person. Delving into the mysteries of his daughter’s last days, Sean stumbles over secrets within his own family as well as the lies of some of the most powerful people in the country. People who will stop at nothing to ensure that Sean never exposes the truth.
Washington, D.C., Suburbs
There should have been a sign. A feeling. Some sense of impending doom. But Sean Serrat’s day started like any other.
“Daddy, guess what?”
Sean always felt a tiny rush of emotion when his children called him Daddy, a word that was fading to extinction in his home.
“Daddy,” Jack repeated. Sean glanced at his son, who was perched on a stool at the granite kitchen counter shoveling Cheerios into his mouth. Sunshine cut through the window and a shadow fell across the seven-year-old’s round face. Jack’s teenage brother, Ryan, sat next to him crunching a bagel.
“What is it, buddy?” Sean stood near the stove, bowl in one hand, spoon in the other, trying not to drip on his tie.
“I told my friend, Dean, about our family Money Jar.”
“I told him that some families have Swear Jars where you have to put money in if you say a bad word. But we have a Money Jar that has money in it and you say bad words into the jar.” Jack cupped his orange juice glass over his mouth and demonstrated with a muffled, “Butt, poop, ass.”
Ryan blurted a laugh, spattering flecks of bagel over the countertop.
Sean tried to hold back a smile. “I don’t think you should tell your friends about the Money Jar,” he said. “And maybe let’s not tell Mommy about—”
“Don’t tell Mommy what?” Emily said, strolling into the kitchen. She wore black yoga pants and a T-shirt and her skin glistened from her morning jog. The boys snickered and Sean reached for the coffee pot and poured Emily a cup.
Emily’s eyes narrowed. “What are you boys up to?”
“Us? Up to something?” Sean said, handing her the coffee.
Emily gave a sideways look: Silly boys. She smelled the coffee, smiled, and took a sip. “You look so handsome,” she said. She set the mug on the counter and adjusted the knot on Sean’s tie. “The new suit looks great. Are you excited for your first day?”
Sean gave a fleeting smile, trying to look sufficiently enthusiastic, something he knew his wife would see through. The job change had been Emily’s idea. No, her demand.
“Hey Dad,” Ryan said, “what’s with the suit? I thought you were gonna be the boss, so doesn’t that mean you can just wear jeans or whatever you want?”
“It’s a big law firm, kiddo, and I’m not the boss. And anyway, I don’t take fashion advice from eighth-graders who need a haircut and can’t keep their pants pulled up.”
“Seriously, go with jeans,” Ryan said. “Set the tone. Show a little confidence.”
“Leave Dad alone,” Emily said. “He’s going to be the talk of the ladies at the office.” She clasped Sean’s chin in her hand and pressed his cheeks together. “How often do you think a tall, dark, and handsome man walks into that stuffy law firm?” She tippy-toed and gave Sean a soft kiss.
“Guys, please.” Ryan lifted a hand to shield his eyes.
Sean grabbed his wife’s bottom to torture his fourteen-year-old.
Ryan shuddered. “Really, stop.”
“You and Jack go get your backpacks together for school,” Sean said. “Unless you want us to make out a little first.” He wrapped his arm around Emily’s waist and pulled her to him.
“I’m out,” Ryan said. Hands on his temples like horse blinders, he marched out of the kitchen. His little brother imitated the move and followed after him.
“You said you might see Abby today?” Emily asked.
“Yeah. I’m going to a reception this afternoon at Georgetown for Justice Malburg’s retirement. Jonathan told me she’d be there.”
“Did Jon say how she’s doing?” Emily opened the refrigerator door. Its face was a collage of family photographs and Jack’s artwork held in place with magnets. Under one of the magnets, a bumper sticker: STAND UP FOR WHAT’S RIGHT, EVEN IF YOU’RE STANDING ALONE.
“He says Abby’s the star research assistant of all his students.”
“Tell her to call me. And that she’d better come to dinner tonight. She missed last week, and tonight’s a celebration.”
Sean nodded. “That reminds me,” he said, “did she talk with you yesterday?”
“I missed her call when I was at Brooks Brothers. She left me a voice mail that she wanted to talk about something, but with all the running around to get ready for today, I forgot to call back.”
“Did she sound okay?” Emily asked. Her smile lines were always more pronounced when she was worried. “I haven’t heard from her in a couple days.”
“It didn’t sound urgent. And she didn’t call back, so I’m sure she’s fine. I’ll see what she needs today at Georgetown.”
Distorted music whined from the kitchen counter. “Who Knew” by Pink. Last summer Abby had changed her mother’s ringtone as a joke, and Emily never figured out how to switch it back. Abby and Emily both now walked around with Pink blaring from their phones whenever someone called.
“Maybe that’s her.” Emily scanned the iPhone, then tapped on the screen, sending the call to voice mail. “Just Margo,” she said with a frown.
“Abby’s fine. I’ll tell her to give you a call.”
Sean kissed his wife and called out good-byes to his sons. On the walk to the subway he thumbed a text to Abby. She didn’t reply.
Sean made his way down the escalator into the concrete arches and dim light of the Metro. The station smelled of smoldering rubber, and his tie blew over his shoulder in the push of air from a train entering the platform. He waved his SmarTrip card over the scanner at the gate and stepped into the train car just before the unforgiving doors clamped shut.
The orange vinyl seats were filled, and Sean gripped the metal handrail, trying not to lose his footing as the train jerked and jostled. He looked about the subway car. It was the usual cast: college students hypnotized by their phones, tourists wearing flip-flops and studying their travel guidebooks, and government workers with laminated security badges dangling from cords around their necks, the quintessential Washington status symbol. He caught one of the government types stealing a look at him. The man’s gaze dropped back to the Washington Post. Sean wondered if the guy recognized him from the story in that morning’s paper. Sean had already received several e-mails from friends about the piece: Nice photo—smile much? Don’t forget us little people. Mr. Big Shot, and the like. The story, and others like it over the past two weeks, speculated that Sean had resigned from the solicitor general’s office in anticipation that the president would soon nominate him to the Supreme Court; that Sean needed some daylight between himself and the controversial abortion and privacy cases that the office would handle next term. As is often the case in Washington, the truth was more pedestrian. The two Fs: family and finances. Heading the appellate group at a large law firm meant he’d have dozens of junior lawyers at his disposal—a large staff would allow him to be home more for the boys. And the firm paid ten times what he made at the solicitor general’s office, ending his constant worries about surviving in overpriced D.C. on a government salary.
For most lawyers, the prospect of being on the short list for a Supreme Court nomination would be thrilling, an actor’s Oscar nomination. For Sean, though, the newspaper story was unsettling. Not because of the job. After years of representing the federal government before the Supreme Court, he could do the job. History had shown that several justices had been dummies, and they’d gotten by. It was the attention. A nomination meant public scrutiny. A vetting. Which meant a deep look into his past. And that was something he didn’t want or need.
The train pulled into Dupont Circle. Sean stepped aside to let an elderly woman totter out. It was then that he felt a hard shoulder bump from behind. It wasn’t a brush-by—it had some energy to it. Purposeful. He watched the man with greasy hair and flannel shirt push roughly out of the subway car into the crowd on the platform. As the train doors started to close, the man twisted around and looked Sean in the eyes.
“They know, Sean,” he said. “They know.”
Sean did a double take. Did he just say my name? The train pulled away from the station, and Sean watched through the window as the man vanished into the sea of commuters. Sean must’ve misheard. Then it dawned on him. That damn story in the Post. But the guy said, They know. All the attention was making him paranoid.
The train hit Sean’s stop at Farragut North, and he walked the two blocks to the Harrington & Caine building. In the lobby, he paused for a moment and took it all in. A glass and steel atrium spiraled up twelve stories, each floor occupied by more than a hundred lawyers. Three women in headset mikes sat behind a sleek reception table. Copies of The Wall Street Journal were neatly folded beside leather chairs in the waiting area. The setting was a stark contrast to the ornate fifth floor of the Justice Department building where Sean had spent most of his career. No portraits, no crown moldings, no American flags or other pretentious symbols of the Office of the Solicitor General and its important work representing the United States before the Supreme Court. Harrington & Caine had a modern, ruthless design. A fitting metaphor, Sean thought, for his move from the self-important government sphere to the rainmaking-obsessed planet of Big Law.
As Sean checked in at the front desk, his phone vibrated and he read the text message from Emily:
Good luck today! I love you!
p.s. still no word from Abby 😦
The morning at Harrington & Caine was a haze of computer training, tax and benefit forms, and lots of people whose names Sean would never remember. By early afternoon, he was eager to see some familiar faces at the reception for Justice Malburg.
He took a cab to First Street and walked to the Georgetown Law campus. A small fleet of black Cadillacs were parked along First, which Sean assumed was the security detail for the Supreme Court justices attending the event. A clock tower stood under a cloudless April sky, cutting a narrow shadow over the only patch of grass on the urban campus.
“Sean,” Cecilia Lowenstein called to him in her husky voice. She gave him a cheek-to-cheek kiss. He’d once told her that he hated the faux European greeting, but that only encouraged Cecilia. Sean scanned the queue at the entrance of the Hotung International building. The line was filled with Washington’s upper echelon: the Supreme Court Bar. A group of insufferable blowhards. Intellectual elitists. Terrible dressers. His people.
“Well, if it isn’t the ‘modest superstar’ I’ve read so much about,” Cecilia said, flapping a copy of the Washington Post.
Sean frowned and shook his head. “Let’s not…”
“You’re no fun.” Cecilia adjusted her skirt and wobbled slightly in heels that seemed taller than she could handle. “So how’s your first day in private practice? Realized how much it sucks yet?”
“They’re still just showing me where the restrooms are and how to turn on my computer, so I haven’t had to deal with billable hours yet.”
“Ugh, don’t get me started about billables. We were spoiled at OSG.” Cecilia, like most of the Supreme Court community, spoke in abbreviations and acronyms. It wasn’t the Office of the Solicitor General, it was OSG. It wasn’t Justice Robert Reeves Anderson, it was RRA. A case wasn’t dismissed as improvidently granted, it was DIG-ed. There was the GVR (granted, vacated, and remanded) and the CVSG (the court calling for the views of the solicitor general), and the list went on. An ivory tower version of annoying teenage text-speak.
Cecilia scrutinized the line ahead of them. “Most of these schmucks charge a thousand bucks an hour for lower court appeals, but will take the Supreme Court cases for free just so they can get oral arguments. With the justices hearing fewer and fewer cases every term, times are tough, my friend. And your law firm’s gonna be so starstruck the first year that they won’t give you grief that you’re not pulling in much money, but that’ll change.”
Sean had heard this a million times from Cecilia, who’d left OSG two years ago to head the appellate group at Beacher & Bishop. She was right that getting Supreme Court cases in private practice wasn’t easy. At OSG, they were part of a small band of elite government lawyers whose sole job was to represent the United States government in cases before the Supreme Court. The office was so influential with the nine justices that the solicitor general often was called “The Tenth Justice.” They didn’t have to go out and hustle for work; the cases came to them. The court accepted only about seventy out of seven thousand petitions requesting review each term, so in private practice the competition for a piece of that 1 percent was fierce. It was an open secret that when the court granted certiorari in a case, even the most prominent Supreme Court lawyers would engage in the distasteful practice of cold calling or e-mailing the parties offering to take the case for free. Still, it gave Sean solace that despite her gloom and doom, Cecilia already had racked up seven arguments while in private practice.
“Thanks for the pep talk,” Sean said wearily. “I can always count on you, Cel.”
“So, you really don’t want to talk about this?” Cecilia flapped the newspaper again.
Sean rolled his eyes.
“You know I hate modesty,” Cecilia said.
“I’m hardly being modest. We all know who’s getting the nomination.” Sean’s gaze cut to Senator Mason James, who was at the front of the line.
Cecilia wrinkled her nose. “Maybe you’re right. Those dumb shits on the Hill are determined to get one of their own on the court—even if it means a schemer like James. But clients will still be impressed, so you should take advantage of the attention.” All nine of the current justices had been federal judges at the time of their appointment, something a block of senators had criticized as a departure from history that left the court too detached from the policy implications of its decisions. Senator James, the former attorney general of Virginia and a brilliant legal mind, offered the best of all worlds, they said. But Sean considered James as nothing more than a politician.
At the entrance, the dean of the law school and Professor Jonathan Tweed greeted guests.
Cecilia scowled at the sight of Professor Tweed. “Your buddy seems to be relishing the attention as usual.”
“Can you be nice today?”
Cecilia didn’t respond. When they reached the receiving line, she skipped by Tweed and greeted the dean with a hug.
Tweed gripped Sean’s hand. “I see some things never change,” Tweed said, shooting a glance at Cecilia.
“No wait, I take that back,” Tweed said. “Things do change. I thought you’d never sell out and join the private sector.”
“Maybe if law schools didn’t pay professors so much, we parents wouldn’t have to change jobs to afford the tuition.”
“You obviously haven’t seen my pay stub,” Tweed replied.
Sean grinned and then eyed the bandage that ran from Tweed’s left temple to the middle of his cheek. “I hope the other guy looks worse.”
“If only my life was so exciting,” Tweed said. “Biking accident—hit some gravel in Rock Creek Park. I was on a date, so it was a little embarrassing.”
“Hard to keep up with the nineteen-year-olds, I guess,” Sean said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Tweed said, scanning for who was in earshot. “She was twenty.”
Sean emitted a small, dry laugh.
Tweed said, “I’ll come by and chat in a bit. And, hey, you’re in private practice now, so you need to actually say hello to people and be friendly.”
“Is Abby here?” Sean asked.
“I haven’t seen her. But you don’t think she’d miss out on being the envy of her classmates, do you?” Tweed pointed up. Windows lined the second-floor atrium overlooking the reception area. Law students were pressed against the glass gawking at the assemblage of legal elite.
Sean smiled. “I suppose she wouldn’t. If you see her before I do, please send her my way.”
Tweed nodded, already shaking hands with the next person in line.
“Get you a drink?” Cecilia asked. She plucked a cracker with olive tapenade from a silver tray offered by a server. Sean looked about the room. All clans accounted for. The former solicitor generals, the legal giants who got the best Supreme Court cases in private practice, mingled near the bar. At the boundaries, huddled in groups of three or four, the current staff of OSG. They talked in whispers and studiously displayed their non-alcoholic drinks. And at the center of the room, the VIPs: the dean, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress. Circling them were the nakedly ambitious. Sean saw Senator James chatting with Justice Scheuerman. The senator let out a big laugh at whatever the justice had said. Sean was sure it wasn’t that funny.
Cecilia clutched Sean’s arm. “There’s Justice Carr, let’s say hello.”
“I’d really rather just wait for the program to start.” Carr was the newest member of the high court, confirmed just a few months ago. He was the only member of The Nine whom Sean had never met. From what he knew, though, Thaddeus Dupont Carr—”T.D.” or “Touch Down” to friends—was one of those guys you loved to hate. College football star (thus the nickname), editor of the Stanford Law Review, and the youngest judge appointed to the Ninth Circuit until he breezed through the Supreme Court confirmation process.
“Come on, you’ll like him. He’s got a dry sense of humor, like you,” Cecilia said. “You’re coming.”
Cecilia soon had Justice Carr laughing. She was famously profane and didn’t censor herself for anyone, Supreme Court justices included. Carr finally turned to Sean and said, “I don’t envy you.”
Sean gave an apologetic smile and said, “Oh, Cecilia’s harmless, you just have to get used to her lack of a filter.” He’d spent a career apologizing for Cecilia.
The justice chortled. “No, I meant this morning’s story in the Post. I remember when the press was speculating about my nomination. Reporters actually dug through the trash cans at my house.”
Sean furrowed his brow. “Seriously?”
“Dead serious,” Justice Carr said. “Be careful.”
Sean nodded, not sure how to respond. After a few seconds, he opted for changing the subject. “My daughter met you recently.”
“She’s a law student here. Jon Tweed brought a group of his students to the court in January. Abby said your talk was ‘inspirational.’ Her word.”
The justice laughed. “Oh, to be young and so easily fooled.”
Senator James brushed by. Justice Carr’s eyes traced James’s path.
“Want some free advice?” Carr asked.
“From you?” Sean said. “Of course.”
“When I was being considered for the nomination, someone wisely told me to always keep an eye on the competition.”
“But in your case,” Carr tilted his head toward Senator James, “you might want to get a food taster.”
Cecilia was right. Sean was starting to like Justice Carr.