The Inadequate Suitor: David Boies’s ‘Courting Justice’

If there is any enlightenment in ‘Courting Justice,’ the new book from renowned lawyer David Boies, it comes from a personal political journey rather than an unusual legal odyssey. This exhaustive and exhausting memoir, filled with Boies’ cases, culminates in a lengthy reflection on Gore v. Bush and the disputed election of 2000. Unfortunately, for the bulk of the book, despite being involved in many of the most important legal dramas of our time, Boies fails to say much of interest about courts or justice—as it turns out, he is a man too preoccupied with process to deliver real legal insights. But where the book fails as a jurisprudential document, it succeeds wonderfully as a political one. And with another election that could again hinge on the vagaries of ballot design, absentee voters, or new registrants, it is a particularly interesting time in which to step into David Boies’s world.

Boies’s world is full of high stakes trials and delicate negotiations. It’s good to be known as a super lawyer—called in to deal with some of the most complex and interesting cases of the last decade. And because of his position, Boies should be uniquely able to bring us inside the delicate machinery of the some of the major cases he’s worked on--The Yankees and Major League Baseball, The Federal Government and Microsoft, Sotheby’s and Christies. Unfortunately, these sections of the book are a lot less fun to read than they might be. Together, they feel like taking a tour of Big Ben with a guide who speaks Creole—the beauty of the clockwork and the majesty of the massive gears and levers are utterly apparent, but the tour guide is nearly incomprehensible.

Part of the problem is the style—Boies writes in such unaffected prose that sentences like “For me the settlement was a mixed blessing. We had won my client what he most wanted, we had earned our firm a multimillion dollar fee (we had taken the case on a contingency fee basis), and I was now free to meet Mary in Las Vegas for a Fourth of July Weekend.” represent the empyrean of his emotional repertoire. Even when he’s writing about asbestos litigation or a complicated international custody case, Boies seems propelled less by the high-octane fuel of justice as by the even more combustible mix of money and intellectual challenge. Boies might well be courting justice, but for most of the book, he is an unworthy suitor.

The other problem, is that in the end, Boies is a process man, albeit a deft one. He is fascinated with the mechanics of legal practice rather than the significance of legal strategy-and the two are rarely the same. For page after page and in case after case, Boies explains where a meeting took place and who called whom rather than why that call was important, regularly making the same mistake as the current president in believing that “I talk to them” is as important as what was discussed and why.

It is only in Florida that the most important element of any legal memoir — outrage -- finally emerges. But when it does, Boies is finally able to deliver the good stuff. Though an hour by hour account of who went where, and who made the decisions that left polling places open, or started and halted the recounts at various offices around the state, Boies is able to illustrate what eludes him throughout the rest of the book—his mastery of complex systems and his ability to synthesize situations in ways that move the levers of power. In other words, the reason he’s actually a great lawyer.

Unlike his other cases most of which take place over long swaths of time, Florida has a temporal compression that seems to spur Boies to write about the long nights and harrowing days in a style that is, if not quite compelling, at least engaging. Moreover, his position inside the discussions, makes the content wonderful. Eavesdropping on the Gore team’s assessments of Katherine Harris, their debates about pursuing a ‘protest’ versus a ‘contest’, and the decision about how to engage the press and how to frame the argument should be required reading for political science undergrads everywhere.

The case seems to have been a turning point for him personally as well, and it is in his experience in Florida that Boies is finally willing to take the gloves off—openly discussing his assessment of the politics of the judiciary, and the subtle but critical ways in which a series of partisan republican state officials were able to influence the timing and ultimately the outcome of a national election. It’s as if, in discussing Florida, Boies is able to drop the pretenses of the law and finally embrace the underlying realpolitik. Operating in a forum in which law and politics are inextricably linked—Boies gets excited, and this time, his breathless procedural discussions work—because as we learn, in politics process is everything. As a consequence, the Gore v. Bush chapters finally deliver real insight into the nexus between politics and justice.

For Boies, Florida is ultimately a cautionary tale about the corrupting influences of partisan politics and the corrosive effect that has on the law. This is nothing new, of course, but the personal story of Boies’ Florida apostasy works precisely because of the flaccidity of the rest of the book. And by the end of his account, the outrageous electoral theft, actually feels as bad as it was. And that, as we head into November, just might be a good thing to remember.

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