Friday, March 21, 2008

John Grisham: The Appeal

What does a company do when faced with a huge settlement after losing a law suit? Appeal of course. In John Grisham’s new book, The Appeal, that is exactly what Krane Chemical Corporation does.

But this is after all, a John Grisham novel, so someone’s going to play dirty. In this case Carl Trudeau steps up to keep the plot moving. He is the majority owner of Krane Chemical and many other companies. Not only does he not want to pay this settlement, he is worried about the numerous suits waiting in the wings. After all, his company has been dumping toxic waste illegally, and in the process causing cancer and death in a small Mississippi town.

So what’s an unscrupulous billionaire to do to improve his chances on appeal? Simple; change the political outlook of the Mississippi Supreme Court. The court has made most of its close decisions on a 5 – 4 vote, upholding jury awards.

The book deals with the lawyers who risked everything to take on Krane Chemical, the town people whose lives have been devastated by toxic waste, and the lawyers who sweep in to cash in.

But mostly, the book deals with an election for a Supreme Court justice. Carl Trudeau – through his minions – wants to replace Justice Sheila McCarthy who is due for re-election before the appeal will make its way to the court docket. She typically sides with the thin majority on jury verdicts. They select an unknown lawyer, Ron Fisk, to oppose her.

We get an up close look at dirty politics. I was pretty impressed with several of the nasty tricks. The forces of evil were particularly creative at creating issues, then painting McCarthy on the wrong side. And issues couldn't stick to Fisk, because he had no judicial record. Meanwhile, the electorate has no idea what is going on. After all, who pays attention to judges or judicial elections?

Grisham makes a compelling argument against the election of judges. But this is not just a politic op-ed piece. The Appeal is a compelling story that makes a point.

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
April 6, 2008

For thirty years Krane Chemical has dumped noxious chemicals at its plant in Cary County, Mississippi. Today the public water smells, tastes, and looks bad. No one drinks it anymore, and Cary County is now known as Cancer County, USA.

The tiny law firm of Payton & Payton (Wes and Mary Grace) has gone all but broke in a 71 day trial suing Krane Chemical on behalf of Jeannette Baker, who has lost her husband and son to cancer. Although Krane spared no expense on defense, it’s pretty obvious they are guilty, and the jury makes a very large award to Jeannette. Whew! She sure deserves it!

Needless to say, Carl Trudeau, CEO of Krane, is pretty mad. After yelling at his New York lawyers, he concludes “I swear to you on my mother’s grave that not one dime of Krane’s money will ever be touched by those ignorant people” in Mississippi.

Warning: The following paragraphs reveal a little more of the plot, but not the resolution of the story.

So Krane, of course, appeals, with the expectation of the case reaching the Mississippi Supreme Court early the next year. For a lot less than the cost of the verdict, Mr. Trudeau figures he can get the Supreme Court to decide in his favor – by helping elect a conservative judge in the coming November election. And he finds just the man to make it happen in a “consultant,” Barry Rinehart.

Much of the book describes the campaign for a Supreme Court position, with two “sponsored” conservative candidates running against the moderate incumbent, Sheila McCarthy. It’s a timely story for us in 2008, as we watch our various candidates posture and spend money. I sure hope real world elections are more balanced and honest than this Mississippi election. It’s horrifying what money can buy, perhaps entirely legally.

And a similar story is playing out today in Wisconsin – from the March 31, 2008 Green Bay Press Gazette:
MADISON — Effects of the bitter Supreme Court race may linger well past Tuesday's election… Both candidates spent much of the campaign attempting to fend off attacks that came from third party groups. Those groups spent millions on the race that many observers characterized as the nastiest in state history.

The Appeal is a fun read, and thought provoking in this election year, but it’s not my favorite Grisham novel. There are a bunch of interesting characters, and we learn a little about each of them, but not enough to get connected. I don’t find myself rooting for their respective successes and failures. Did Carl Trudeau succeed and live up to his vow??


Nate Bradley said...

Kit has mentioned that The Appeal is not his favorite Grisham novel. I suppose I'd have to agree. But neither is it my least favorite.

I started wondering what my favorite is. I think really I don't have one, although I've read - and have - just about everything he has written. But I haven't read any twice.

I probably should re-read some. The ones I'm most likely to re-read are The Firm, The Client, and The Partner. I've got good memories of those. Least likely is probably The Chamber.

Kit said...

It would be fun to read The Firm again, since it's the one that got us reading this sort of story. But I don't like the ending that much. Who ever said that spending the rest of your life with a big bank account but confined to boats and beaches in the Caribbean is a good thing? I'd get bored.