Book Review: The Local by Joey Hartstone
By Janet WebbJuly 25, 2022
The Local is a debut thriller that crackles with memorable characters. The novel is set in Marshall, Texas, the site of the Federal courthouse of the Eastern District of Texas (EDTX) known as the “rocket docket“—noted for its speedy disposition of cases and controversies that come before it.
Big time patent lawyers from national firms flock to Marshall, but their slick citified associates are the worst people to argue in front of a local jury. Local lawyers serve as the public face of patent lawsuits. The most effective local is Marshall native and small-town lawyer James Euchre. He knows how to shake the money tree and get his clients extraordinary payouts, like Marta Sexton, a home economics teacher with arthritis who hails from Skokie, Illinois. Over the years her arthritis got worse and her doctors prescribed more meds until one day she couldn’t open the childproofed bottle.
Frustrated but not defeated, she conceived of a new design for a medicine container that didn’t take much force or a strong grip to open but was still impenetrable to a young person’s inquisitive paws. Inspired by a combination lock on a high school locker, she sketched a design that required a person to line up three designated spots on the pill bottle with three corresponding points on its twisting cap.
Smart lady. And thankfully, Mrs. Sexton filed for a patent. Imagine her shock and fury, when she purchases a bottle of aspirin at an airport kiosk and sees that the bottle was childproofed with her specific design. Off she goes to a capable law firm where her most important decision is where to file suit.
With all the kiosks in all the airports in all the country, the options were almost limitless. The best option though, at least for the past twenty years, has been the Eastern District of Texas. The reason is Judge Gardner.
James does internal fist pumps when he hears the verdict of Mrs. Sexton’s suit: “We hereby award the defendant to pay damages in the amount of $23.5 million.” Another happy client in Judge Gardner’s courtroom—a man who invoked the Bible to justify his tight court schedule: “If God can create the universe in six days, surely we can finish a patent trial in less time.”
Sometimes James is hired to defend companies that are accused of patent or software infringement. Amir Zawar, the CEO and creator of Medallion, found a way to fold taxi drivers into the drive-share economy. Success breeds lawsuits; out of the woodwork come companies claiming that Medallion’s software infringed on their proprietary software. James tries to reassure Amir.
“I understand that no one likes being party to a lawsuit, and it compounds your resentment when it takes you away from home. But patent litigation is our specialty,” I said, referring to the collection of lawyers at the table, “so you should take some comfort in knowing that you’re in good hands.”
“Medallion has a pilot program in eight cities right now. By Q3 of next year, we will have doubled that. I should be tending to the demands of my business, not wasting away here in Mayberry getting sued by every rideshare company and navigation software developer from Silicon Valley,” Amir said. “My father busted his ass to try to get ahead. He did everything that was ever asked of him, and then the system screwed him over. I won’t allow that to happen to me.”
Amir Zawar is a complicated client. He created a business empire beyond his father’s wildest dreams. He’s also a resentful, angry defendant. His attitude works out very badly in court, where he calls the EDTX corrupt.
“If you think I’m going to display even the slightest amount of deference to this court while it threatens to destroy everything I’ve built, then, respectfully, Your Honor, you are out of your fucking mind.”
The judge’s face was like stone.
The rancor escalates, Judge Gardner fines Amir, and Amir tosses hundreds at the bench “as if the judge had just given Amir a private lap dance.” Gardner sends James a pleading glance for him to get his angry client under control. But when James lays hands on Amir and tries to push him towards his chair, Amir explodes again and knocks James to the ground. The bailiffs handcuffs Amir while he screams at the judge, threatening to kill him. Gardner orders his bailiff to lock up Amir, who is promptly arrested and sent to to jail. But his lawyers get him sprung.
That night the traditional Christmas party is held at the courthouse. James, slightly the worse for wear, makes his way home, only to be woken up in the middle of the night. Amir has been accused of murder. The victim is Judge Gardner. No way, James is not going to defend him. Amir is wealthy, he’s a visible minority and he stands accused of killing a beloved hometown hero. The police arrest Amir because he meets the three biggies: motive; opportunity; and no alibi.
Somehow James is persuaded to take the case. Amir’s law firm fleshes out James’ team by assigning a new associate, a former prosecutor, to help him. James is not a criminal defense lawyer but Amir insists he wants him. James vacillates between believing Amir and thinking he his client might be a killer. Does James get extra time to prepare for a high profile murder trial? No such luck, as Gardner’s replacement is determined to follow in Gardner’s footsteps. It’s not called the rocket docket for nothing.
The plot summation says it all: “A freewheeling, small-town attorney takes on a national murder trial when an out-of-town client is accused of killing a federal judge in Texas.” It gets even better when you flesh out the details, like the fact that the murdered federal judge was a mentor and father-figure to James Euchre, an occasionally erratic and temperamental local lawyer. The Local is a brilliant, cinematic story as big as Texas.