In another life, Nathaniel Lester had been a flamboyant criminal defense lawyer with an uncanny knack for winning murder trials. At one point, two decades earlier, he had put together a streak of twelve consecutive not-guilty verdicts, virtually all in small towns throughout Mississippi, the types of places where those accused of heinous crimes are generally presumed guilty the moment they are arrested. His notoriety attracted clients from the civil side, and his country law office in the town of Mendenhall prospered nicely.
Nat won big verdicts and negotiated even larger settlements. His specialty became catastrophic personal injuries on the offshore oil rigs where many local men went for high-paying jobs. He was active in various trial lawyer groups, gave huge sums to political candidates, built the biggest house in town, went through a series of wives, and began drinking heavily. The booze, along with a string of ethics complaints and legal skirmishes, finally slowed him down, and when he was ultimately boxed in, he surrendered his law license to avoid a prison sentence. He left Mendenhall, found a new wife, sobered up, and resurfaced in Jackson, where he embraced Buddhism, yoga, vegetarianism, and a simpler lifestyle.
One of the few smart decisions he'd made during his heyday was to bury some of his money.
During the first week of August, he pestered Sheila McCarthy until she agreed to a quick lunch. Every lawyer in the state knew something of his colorful history, and she was understandably nervous. Over tofu and sprouts, he offered to run her campaign, at no cost. He would devote his considerable energies to nothing else for the next three months. She was apprehensive. His long gray hair fell to his shoulders.
He had matching diamond earrings, and though they were quite small, they were stillvisible. He displayed one tattoo, on his left arm, and she didn't want to think of the others and where they might be. He wore jeans and sandals and a collection of bright leather bracelets on each wrist.
But Nat had not been a successful courtroom lawyer because he was dull and unpersuasive.
He most definitely was not. He knew the district, its towns and courthouses and the people who ran them. He had a passionate hatred of big business and the influence it bought, and he was bored and looking for a war.
She caved in and invited him to join hers. Driving away from the restaurant, she questioned her sanity, but she also had a gut feeling that Nathaniel Lester could be the spark her campaign so badly needed. Her own poll showed her trailing Fisk by five points, and a sense of desperation was settling in.
They met again that night at her Jackson headquarters, and in a four-hour meeting Nat assumed control. With a combination of wit, charm, and castigation, he whipped her ragtag staff into a near frenzy of excitement. To prove his mettle, he called three Jackson trial lawyers, at home, and, after a few pleasantries, asked them why in the hell they had not yet sent money to the McCarthy campaign. Using a speakerphone, he shamed them, cajoled them, berated them, and refused to hang up until each had promised significant contributions from themselves and their families, clients, and friends. Don't mail the checks, he said-he would personally drive over before noon tomorrow and get the money himself. The three commitments totaled $70,000. From that moment, Nat was in charge.
The following day he picked up the checks and began the process of calling every trial lawyer in the state. He contacted labor groups and black leaders. He fired one staff member and hired two others. By the end of the week, Sheila was getting a morning printout of Nat's version of her daily schedule. She haggled a little, but not much. He was already working sixteen hours a day and expected that from the candidate and everyone else.
In Hattiesburg, Wes stopped by the home of Judge Harrison for a quiet lunch. With thirty Bowmore cases on his docket, it would be unwise to be seen in public. Though they had no intention of discussing pending business, the coziness would seem inappropriate.
Tom Harrison had extended the invitation to Wes and Mary Grace, whenever they had the time. Mary Grace was out of town and sent her regrets.
The subject was politics. Tom's circuit court district covered Hattiesburg and Forrest County and the three rural counties of Cary, Lamar, and Perry. Almost 80 percent of the registered voters were in Hattiesburg, his home and also that of Joy Hoover, his opponent. She would do well in certain precincts in the city, but Judge Harrison was confident he would do even better. Nor was he worried about the smaller counties.
In fact, he seemed generally unconcerned about losing. Hoover appeared to be well financed, probably with outside money, but Judge Harrison knew his district and enjoyed its politics.
Cary County had the smallest population of the four, and it was continuing to decline with no small measure of help from Krane Chemical and its toxic history. They avoided that topic and discussed various politicians in and around Bowmore. Wes assured him that the Paytons, as well as their clients, friends, Pastor Denny Ott, and Mary Grace's family, would do everything possible to reelect Judge Harrison.
Conversation shifted to other races, primarily that of Sheila McCarthy. She had passed through Hattiesburg two weeks earlier and spent half an hour at the Payton firm, where she awkwardly managed to avoid mentioning the Bowmore litigation while rounding up votes. The Paytons admitted they had no money to contribute but promised to work overtime to get her reelected. A truckload of yard signs and other campaign materials had been delivered to the office the following day.
Judge Harrison lamented the politicization of the supreme court. "It's unseemly," he was saying, "how they are forced to grovel for votes. You, as a lawyer representing a client in a pending case, should have no contact whatsoever with a supreme court justice. But because of the system, one comes to your office seeking money and support.
Why? Because some special interests with plenty of money have decided they would like to own her seat on the court. They're spending money to purchase a seat. She responds by raising money from her side of the street. It's a rotten system, Wes."
"How do you fix it?"
"Either take away the private money and finance the races with public funds or switch to appointments. Eleven other states have figured out how to make the appointment system work. I'm not sure their courts are vastly superior to ours in terms of legal talent, but at least the special interests don't control them."
"Do you know Fisk?" Wes asked.
"He's been in my courtroom a couple of times. Nice fella, green as hell. Looks nice in a suit, typical insurance defense routine. Opens his files, files his motions, settles, closes his files, never gets his hands dirty. He's never heard a case, mediated one, tried one, and he's never shown any interest in being a judge. Think about it, Wes. Every small town needs lawyers occasionally to serve as city judges or assistant magistrates or traffic court referees, and we all felt the obligation to step in when we were younger. Not this guy. Every small county needs lawyers to pinch-hit with youth court and drug court and the like, and those of us who aspired to be real judges volunteered. I mean, you gotta start somewhere. Not this guy. I'll bet he's never been to city court in Brookhaven or youth court in Lincoln County.
He wakes up one day, decides he's suddenly passionate about the judiciary and, what the hell, he'll just start at the top. It's an insult to those of us who toil in the system and make it work."
"I doubt if running was his idea."
"No, he was recruited. That makes it even more shameful. They look around, pick some greenhorn with a nice smile and no record to attack, and package him with their slick marketing. That's politics. But it shouldn't contaminate the judiciary."
"We beat them two years ago with McElwayne."
"So you're optimistic?"
"No, Judge, I'm terrified. I haven't slept well since Fisk announced, and I won't sleep well until he's defeated. We're broke and in debt, so we can't write a check, but every member of our firm has agreed to spend one hour a day knocking on doors, passing out brochures, putting up yard signs, and making phone calls. We've written letters to our clients. We're leaning on our friends. We've organized Bowmore. We're doing everything possible because if we lose the Baker case there is no tomorrow."
"Where is the appeal?"
"All the briefs are in. Everything is nice and tidy and waiting on the court to tell us when, and if, it wants oral argument. Probably early next year."
"No chance of a decision before the election?"
"None whatsoever. It's the most important case on the docket, but then every lawyer feels this way. As you know, the court works on its own schedule. No one can push it."
They had iced coffee as they inspected the judge's small vegetable garden. The temperature was a hundred degrees and Wes was ready to go. They finally shook hands on the front porch. As Wes drove away, he couldn't help but worry about him. Judge Harrison was much more concerned about the McCarthy race than his own.
The hearing was on a motion to dismiss filed by Hinds County. The courtroom belonged to Chancellor Phil Shingleton. It was a small, busy, efficient courtroom with oak walls and the obligatory faded portraits of long-forgotten judges. There was no box for the jurors because jury trials did not occur in chancery court. Crowds were rare, but for this hearing every seat was taken.
Meyerchec and Spano, back from Chicago, sat with their radical lawyer at one table.
At the other were two young women representing the county. Chancellor Shingleton called things to order, welcomed the crowd, noted the interest from the media, and looked at the file. Two courtroom artists worked on Meyerchec and Spano. Everyone waited anxiously as Shingleton flipped through paperwork as if he'd never seen it.
In fact, he'd read it many times and had already written his ruling.
"Just curious," he said without looking up. "Why did you file this thing in chancery court?"
The radical lawyer stood and said, "It's a matter of equity, Your Honor. And we knew we could expect a fair trial here." If it was intended as humor, it missed its mark.
The reason it was filed in chancery court was to get it dismissed as soon as possible.
A hearing in circuit court would take even longer. A federal lawsuit would go off in the wrong direction.
"Proceed," Shingleton said.
The radical lawyer was soon railing against the county and the state and society in general. His words came in short, rapid bursts, much too loud for the small room and much too shrill to listen to for more than ten minutes. He went on and on. The laws of the state were backward and unfair and discriminated against his clients because they couldn't marry each other. Why shouldn't two mature and consenting gay adults who are in love and want all the responsibilities and obligations and commitments and duties of matrimony be allowed the same privileges and legal rights as two heterosexuals?
He managed to ask this question at least eight different ways.
The reason, explained one of the young ladies for the county, is that the laws of the state do not permit it. Plain and simple. The state's constitution grants to the legislature the right to make laws regarding marriage, divorce, and so on, and no one else has this authority. If and when the legislature approves same-sex marriage, then Mr. Meyerchec and Mr. Spano will be free to pursue their desires.
"Do you expect the legislature to do this anytime soon?" Shingleton deadpanned.
"No," was the quick reply, and it was good for some light laughter. The radical lawyer rebutted with the strenuous argument that the legislature, especially "our" legislature, passed laws every year that are struck down by the courts. That is the role of the judiciary! After making this point loud and clear, he devised several ways to present it in slightly different formats.
After an hour, Shingleton was fed up. Without a recess, and glancing at his notes, he gave a ruling that was rather succinct. His job was to follow the laws of the state, and if the laws prohibited marriage between two men or two women, or two men and one woman, or whatever combination, anything other than one man and one woman, then he, as a chancellor, had no choice but to dismiss the case.
Outside the courthouse, with Meyerchec on one side and Spano on the other, the radical lawyer continued his screeching for the press. He was aggrieved. His clients were aggrieved, though it was noted by a few that both looked quite bored with it all.
They were appealing immediately to the Mississippi Supreme Court. That's where they were headed, and that's where they wanted to be. And with the shadowy firm of Troy-Hogan paying the bills from Boca Raton, that's exactly where they were going.