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A Judge's Novel About A Fictional Judge Who Turns Criminal


Friday, Jul. 5, 2002

Money To Burn is the first novel by federal trial judge James Zagel of the Northern District of Illinois. It's a good one - a fascinating portrait of a fictional federal trial judge (in the Northern District of Illinois, no less) who decides to cross the line of legality. The judge decides to mastermind a fantastic crime: rob the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago of $100 million.

The book succeeds on many levels. The heist is exciting to read, described with detail that is convincing and seems realistic. (Though Zagel adds in the "Afterword" that he purposefully "misdescribed" some aspects of the Federal Reserve so that the book did not become an instruction book for how to rob the Fed.)

The old-fashioned thriller or detective plot--the suspenseful unraveling of the crime - works well too, as Detective Plymouth closes in on Devine and pressures one of his co-conspirators to confess. And the main character is shockingly likable given his misdeeds: despite yourself, you find yourself hoping the judge gets away with the crime.

However, the most fascinating aspect of the book--and what sets it apart from the run-of-the mill legal thriller--is its complex and human portrait of a judge disillusioned with his seeking of justice in the courtroom.

A Dual Plot Shows Us Both A Crime and A Courtroom From Inside

For the robbery, Judge Devine enlists the help of his childhood buddy, Dave Brody, a firefighting hero with a dark side: he also torches buildings on the side to earn extra money. He also recruits a married couple, Charity and Trimble, who are disgruntled workers at the Fed. Zagel tells an exciting tale of Devine's planning the crime with his cohorts, and then of his efforts to escape detection by the increasingly encroaching Detective Plymouth.

Meanwhile, Zagel deftly juxtaposes that story with the stories of trials that Devine is overseeing in his courtroom. How does a judge size up the parties in his courtroom, trying to assess who is telling the truth and who is not? Zagel shows us how - and that is especially interesting since the reader of the book, like the reader of any thriller, is trying to make the very same kind of credibility determinations.

Indeed, the reader feels he or she is getting an inside view of the machinations of a courtroom. For instance, Judge Devine makes wry, insightful comments about the law. A sentencing is a "twelve-minute play" in which the "judge has all the real lines." And a probation officer's report is a fifteen minutes of limited fame for its subject, according to the Judge: "If you are the ordinary man or woman of the world, the only way you will ever have your biography written is to run afoul of the law so that a probation officer can put your life on paper."

The Motivations That Lead A Disillusioned Judge To Contemplate Crime

Devine is a federal judge with life tenure, a good salary, an excellent pension to look forward to, and a long history of obeying - and, indeed, enforcing - the law. He's seen and sentenced numerous defendants who tried and failed to commit what they doubtless though was the perfect crime. So why would Devine choose to turn to crime himself, especially the momentous and impossible-sounding crime of robbing the Fed? It's a difficult question but fortunately, Zagel has a convincing answer.

Judge Devine is a lonely man. His beautiful, fiery, and intelligent wife, Ellen, also an attorney, whom he loved dearly, died suddenly at a young age. Before she died, Redding Prindiville, the President of the Fed, ruined four years of her life and their marriage by accusing her of fraud he knew she did not commit. Devine wants retribution - so he commits a momentous crime on Prindiville's watch, against the institution he is supposed to be safeguarding.

But Devine, unlike many thriller heroes, is not simply out for revenge; he also seeks meaning. Zagel suggests that Devine decides to rob the Fed in order to bring some feeling back into his life; Devine has felt numb since the death of his wife. Scenes of life with his wife, particularly several steamy sex scenes, suggest that Ellen provided him with excitement and passion. Now he seeks to experience these heady feelings again - this time, through crime.

In one scene after his wife's death, Devine, a jazz-lover, sits in a jazz joint with Dave and listens to a lyric from "Come Back to Me": "Turn the highway to dust, Break the law if you must, Move the world, only just, Come back to me." He later thinks to himself, "Sitting there with Dave and facing an empty home for the rest of the night, I felt like robbing the Fed."

It's as if committing this crime is a way of finding his way back to Ellen, or at least to a life of meaning and emotion. This motivation is one of the key ways in which Zagel convinces us to empathize with the Judge despite his criminal acts.

A Jaded Judge's Retrospective on A Long Life

Not only Devine's lost marriage, but also his job as a federal judge has ceased to provide him with meaning. He ruminates on how he lost the innocence of his youthful days as "Perfect Paulie" in Catholic school, evolving into a happily married brand-new federal trial judge but later becoming lonely and embittered after his wife's death.

Judge Devine describes a new judge's attitude just after he has been appointed: "I have been given extraordinary power over the lives of human beings and, since I have a job for life, I can do the job exactly as I see fit because, short of conviction after trial before the United States Senate on charges of impeachment by the United States House of Representatives, no one can fire me." According to Devine, a new federal judge is also "likely to recapture that delusion" one has as a baby that "all that is around you exists to serve your needs. . .You are the center of the universe."

We see how Judge Devine feels that the law limits his ability as judge to do "as he sees fit," or to use his power to effect the "just" result. Moreover, Devine describes how even after a few weeks, the new judge's feeling of personal, near-absolute power cedes to the feeling that "[i]t is not you who is the center of the universe, even the small one that consists of the docket of a single judge. The center is whoever walks in the room wearing a black robe."

Thus, Judge Devine's masterminding of this incredible crime seems, to some extent, an attempt to create a universe outside the courtroom that he can truly control.

A Judge Who Sides Strongly With the Prosecution, and Rejects a Proper Plea

The crime, Zagel shows us, also allows Judge Devine to feel a joy that he longer feels as a judge, because he has become disillusioned with his efforts to seek justice in his courtroom.

Early in the book, Judge Devine sentences a defendant to five years in prison, commenting to the reader, "It was no justice, but it was the best I could do." Meanwhile, in a case central to the book, he decides to turn down a plea agreement essentially because he has lost his objectivity; he senses the defendant is guilty and wants him to pay - and to pay more than the plea agreement and prosecutors seek. A trial that neither prosecution nor defense wanted ensues.

The defendant, Mr. Serena, has been accused of defrauding an old woman of her life's savings. And in a related case, Serena has caused his children physical harm to extract insurance money. He's an evil character, but a judge is supposed to be impartial.

Instead, we see that Judge Devine takes his role as arbiter of justice too personally; he crosses the line and tries to pursue justice too vigorously, becoming overly pro-prosecution instead of dispassionate. When the old woman who has been defrauded commits suicide, and so does not testify, he weeps once he has returned back to his chambers. He then helps the prosecution by providing them with a tip as to how to get the woman's suicide note entered into evidence despite the fact that it is hearsay.

When the jury convicts Serena, Judge Devine reacts strongly: "I was transfigured in a second, a cool intense joy in every cell that I had not felt since Ellen was alive." It's as if justice is a drug, and when Judge Devine can't get enough of it in his courtroom, he's driven to find some form of this "joy" elsewhere. Ironically, for him the joy comes from committing a crime and seeking retribution against a "system" he sees as corrupt.

The Novel's Message: Judges Are Only Human

When this happens, Judge Devine reflects to himself, "More of these days in my court and I would not have robbed the Fed, a fine thought to have and believe that day." In the courtroom and through committing the robbery, the Judge is seeking the same thing: the ability to control outcomes, to ensure that the just person wins and the just resolution (by the judge's own lights, that is) is reached. But what Judge Devine and the reader both learn is that, despite the best planning, omniscience and control of the outcome are just as hard to achieve outside of the courtroom as they are within.

Early in the book Judge Devine comments, "The judge should never look surprised; it is inconsistent with the image of omniscience that makes the job easier to do and gives comfort even to the losers." But for the judge, many surprises follow - not all of them pleasant. By the end of the book, Zagel's subtle portrait of Devine reveals that the judge is, after all, only human. For this fictional federal judge, at least, the image of omniscience a judge needs to project is just that--a trapping of the judicial role just like the black robe.

Laura Hodes, a 2000 graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and a frequent FindLaw guest columnist and book reviewer, is an attorney and freelance writer living in Chicago. Her work can be found on this site's guest columns archive, as well as in Slate and The New Republic Online.

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