The best legal novels that you can't put down

Garrett Epps Author Of Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America
By Garrett Epps

Who am I?

Garrett Epps is the author of two published novels and five works of non-fiction about the U.S. Constitution. He graduated from Duke Law School in 1991; since then he has taught Constitutional Law at the American University, the University of Baltimore, Boston College, Duke University, and the University of Oregon. For ten years he was Supreme Court Correspondent for The Atlantic, and covered from close up cases involving the Affordable Care Act, same-sex marriage, and the Trump Administration’s immigration policies. He is now Legal Affairs Editor of The Washington Monthly, and at work on a novel about crime and justice during the years of Southern segregation. 

I wrote...

Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America

By Garrett Epps,

Book cover of Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America

What is my book about?

The Fourteenth Amendment, enacted after the Civil War, changed the Constitution, and America, in more ways than we can count. It is the Amendment’s Citizenship Clause that made birthright citizenship part of our fundamental law; the Equal Protection Clause that doomed school segregation and other racist laws; the Due Process Clause that guarantees the right to use contraceptives, choose abortion, or marry a partner of either sex.

The story of that Amendment’s Framing in 1866 is often referred to but seldom told. Democracy Reborn is the only current one-volume history of how the Amendment came to be. The story memorably involves such figures as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Charles Sumner, Andrew Johnson, and Walt Whitman.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Bleak House

By Charles Dickens,

Book cover of Bleak House

Why this book?

The lawyers and clerks who inhabit this book are recognizable types around any courthouse today. Bleak House is one of the best novels ever written in English, funny, cheerful, and tragic by turns. It also features the first detective character in English fiction. “The one great principle of the English law,” Dickens writes, “is to make business for itself.”

The Trial

By Franz Kafka,

Book cover of The Trial

Why this book?

“Someone must have slandered Josef K.,” the story begins, “for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.” The reader never learns who slandered K, or what he is charged with—but, over the course of a year, this respectable banker is stripped of his liberty, his dignity, and even his will. The book contains “Before the Law,” the most famous legal fable ever written, about a man who waits a lifetime at the doorway of the law—then dies without being admitted. As he dies, he learns that the doorway he has waited at was created especially for him.

The Just and the Unjust

By James Gould Cozzens,

Book cover of The Just and the Unjust

Why this book?

This novel is in many ways the precise opposite of a “courtroom thriller.” The murder trial depicted is not upended by surprise evidence, witnesses do not blurt out confessions, and the outside world takes little notice of what is transpiring in the courtroom. But prosecutor Abner Coates is a memorable portrait of a man for whom the law has become an entire world. A powerful courtroom moment punctures Abner’s professional irony, when he imagines looking at himself through the eyes of the defendants, and he realizes that despite his good nature and intentions, to them he is a savage enemy trying to kill them.

The Schirmer Inheritance

By Eric Ambler,

Book cover of The Schirmer Inheritance

Why this book?

A World War II bomber pilot returns home thoroughly determined to have no more excitement in his life. He settles down in a quiet wills-and-trusts practice. In a dusty file about an unclaimed estate, he sees that a missing heir may be living in Europe. Searching for this heir, he is pulled into Cold War politics, kidnaped, and dragged into Communist Albania, where his fate becomes an international incident. The law overtakes George in a thoroughly believable way; it is an example of why readers fear the law, which may at any moment demand that we sacrifice our comfort, our place in society, and even our very lives.

Mistaken Identity

By Lisa Scottoline,

Book cover of Mistaken Identity: A Rosato & Associates Novel

Why this book?

Scottoline, a former big-firm litigator, has created Benny Rosato, the founder of an all-female firm of defense lawyers, as the master of the world of courts and jails. In Mistaken Identity, however, Benny defends an unexpected client—“Alice Connoly,” who is Rosato herself, a double claiming to be a long-lost twin. What follows raises the question of why (as the mysterious defendant asks) Alice is in jail while Rosato is free, secure, and successful. In a way, Mistaken Identity is a feminist version of The Trial--a fever dream of that same hellish world that Kafka saw beneath K.’s feet--the law, supernatural and inhuman, that waits to devour the innocent and the guilty alike.

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