“Ah – it's past suppertime!” Supreme Court Justice Michael Lightcap looked up at the darkening light of the window, and then over at his semi-official secretary. “I suppose we’d better wrap up, hadn’t we? Leopold will be waiting for us. Nora, how many of these petitions do we have yet to review?”
Nora dutifully consulted her paperwork. “Just the one, Professor. Hague v. CIO.”
“Refresh my memory, if you will.”
“Well, Mayor Hague of New Jersey’s got a bee in his bonnet about the Committee for Industrial Organization – that’s the labor union, you know, that split from the American Federation of Labor a few years back – so he made up a whole slew of laws stopping them from having meetings and so on, saying it was Communist propaganda –”
“Ah, yes, the free speech case. We can set that aside, I think, Nora – the lower courts have resolved it perfectly well – and the rest will wait for tomorrow.”
“What do you mean, you’re setting it aside?” demanded a stocky figure from the doorway.
Michael looked up, with a smile. “Why, Leopold! Getting hungry, were you? We were just finishing here --”
“Oh no, you weren’t.” Leopold came over to sit on Nora’s desk, and put one hand firmly on the folder, keeping it open as she made to close it. “You were telling me why you weren’t proposing to hear Hague v. CIO, is what you were doing.”
Michael frowned. “Why, it’s just as I said – the lower courts have resolved it, and in any case, it’s a local matter. There’s no need for the Supreme Court to interfere in such a case. It’s hardly our business.”
“Not your business?” demanded Leopold. “When a political boss can tell a good, hard-working union man what he can or can’t say in the street, it isn’t the business of the highest court in the country?”
Michael regarded Leopold kindly. “Well, Leopold, if you’re really interested – of course you couldn’t be expected to know the history of the case law around this matter, but precedent has long stated that a local government has the right to determine what can and cannot be allowed within its municipal limits, much as a land-owner would --”
“Professor, if you think it’s a good idea for a political boss to act like a landlord, you clearly haven't had much experience with landlords!”
Nora, recognizing the signs of a long argument in the making, sighed, sat back, and reached for her knitting.
“He’s a great man, of course,” Leopold said, several days later.
“Of course,” Nora agreed.
“He’s just used to thinking a certain way,” Leopold said. “Just a little stubborn, is all.”
“Oh,” said Nora, “just a little, yes. Just exactly like some other people I could name. Just a little stubborn, that’s all.”
“After all,” said Leopold, “a fellow doesn’t jump out of the window of his ivory tower all at once, does he? You couldn’t expect him to.” He leaned across Nora’s desk, warming to his argument. “You’ve got to make him a – a kind of ladder, don’t you? Build it out of facts, let him test each one with his foot, and see that it’s solid, until he’s standing on the ground with the rest of us.”
“That’s very nice,” said Nora. “Very poetic.”
“Thank you –”
“Which doesn’t change the fact that this plan of yours is absolutely crazy!”
Leopold put a hand over his heart and pulled out the most reproachful look in his repertoire. Nora, ignoring him, jumped to her feet and put her hands on her desk. “Why can’t you just let it be? The Professor’s the one on the Court, after all. It’s his job to make decisions on what to hear or not hear. Just because you’ve been reading a few petitions --”
“I’ve been reading more than petitions, Nora,” Leopold informed her. “I’ve been reading case law.”
“I know,” said Nora. “I keep hearing you snoring over it.”
“Well, it’s the driest stuff I ever read in my life. But the fact of the matter is that what nine men, including our very dear friend Mr. Justice Professor Michael Lightcap, decide to say or not to say about a thing affects thousands of people – millions – which means that our very dear friend Mr. Justice Professor Michael Lightcap has no business sitting back and saying a thing’s not his business!”
“All right, so argue with him about it! Argue every night until the cows come home. It’s better than – what are you thinking? Secretly hanging around City Hall so you can tell the Professor all about how they’re slandering and oppressing the unions?”
“I don’t see what makes it such a bad plan,” said Leopold.
“Well, for one thing,” said Nora, “it really wouldn’t be very secret. You’ve been in the black books since you were twelve years old!”
Leopold laughed. “Come on – Jersey City isn’t Lochester! There isn’t a person in that town who knows me from Adam. All I have to do is stick around long enough to get some evidence to demonstrate to the Professor exactly the kind of bourgeois oppression –”
“Free speech violations,” said Nora.
“-- that the unions are dealing with from these corrupt political bosses –”
“Municipal government overreaching its authority,” said Nora.
Leopold stopped and looked at her with admiration. “Say, anyone would think you were the one who’d been reading all those dry law books!”
“I’ve typed up enough opinions for the Professor by now that I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on the lingo,” said Nora, “and you should too, if you want to convince him of anything. Look, you’ve been telling him all about how the bosses have their feet on the necks of labor ever since we got here – what makes you think that anything’s going to be different now?”
“Because,” Leopold said, with the air of one playing a trump card, “Joe managed to get me one of these.”
He reached down below the desk and hauled up a solid leather case.
“You’ve got a briefcase,” said Nora flatly. “Well, good for you.”
“I’ve got something that looks like a briefcase,” Leopold corrected her, and reached over to pop open the two latches on the case.
The two of them gazed down into the complex infrastructure of reels, wire, and magnetic tape heads concealed inside the case.
“What is all that?” said Nora, forgetting her disapproval briefly in her fascination.
“Magnetic wire recording. PIs use it, sometimes, to catch folks in the act of saying things they shouldn’t be saying and doing things they’d rather not be caught doing. Joe got it from one of his clients, and --” Leopold grinned. “-- passed it on to me. Said that as a man of the law, he didn’t have much use for it, and wouldn’t trust anyone else with it except the most honest man he knew.”
“Sometimes,” Nora said, “I have a lot of questions about Joe’s judgment. I’m sure secretly recording people must be illegal, Leopold, even if the people you’re secretly recording are corrupt political bosses.”
“Nora,” said Leopold, grandly, “sometimes you have to break the letter of the law in order to get at the spirit of it. Haven’t we all agreed on that?”
He snapped the lid of the briefcase down, clicked the latches shut, picked the case up, made a face at the weight of it, and began lugging it towards the door of Michael’s office.
Halfway there, he turned around and grinned at her. “Tell him I’ll be back in a few days, will you?”
“Ughhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” groaned Nora, and sank back down in her chair.
Of one thing she was sure: if Leopold wanted to break the law for a high purpose, that was his prerogative, but Professor Michael Lightfield, Supreme Court Justice of the United States, was not going to find out anything about it until it was all safely done and dusted.
“And the plaintiff further alleges that the petitioner’s conduct is in violation of --” Michael broke off to frown out the open window; Nora’s fingers paused on the keys of her typewriter. “Nora – how long did Leopold say that he’d be gone again?”
“A few days, he said,” said Nora. “He wasn’t very specific, I’m afraid.” She aimed a bright smile at Michael, and he turned away from the window towards her, looking like a person who wanted to be reassured. It had now been a week and a half since Leopold departed for New Jersey. “Oh, well, you know Leopold, Professor! Gadding about here and there on whatever cause takes his fancy! Why, he’s so irresponsible sometimes, you’d think the man didn’t know what a day of the week was --”
She froze. Through the window, she could see Leopold coming over the lawn towards the townhouse they all shared. This was, of course, good news. The bad news was that even from this distance, she could see that Leopold was limping, had a purpled pair of half-faded black eyes, and – worst of all – was still lugging his heavy and almost certainly illegal wire recording briefcase.
She opened her mouth to call out to him; Leopold, catching sight of the two of them through the window, shook his head frantically and gestured to his briefcase. Nora snapped her mouth shut and took a deep breath.
Michael’s brow furrowed. “Is something the matter, Nora?” he asked, and started to turn back towards the window.
Hastily, Nora ran towards him and put her hands on his face, holding it fixed towards her. “Professor,” she said, staring deep into his eyes. “You dear, dear man, you just care so much. It touches my heart, it really does. Why, when Leopold gets back, won’t I give him a piece of my mind for making you worry!” She slid one hand round his neck to pull him down towards her for a kiss, and, with the other, gestured frantically for Leopold to go round the back.
Michael smiled into the kiss, put one hand up to her face, and, with the other, reached back through the window to grab Leopold’s arm as he passed by.
“Oh!” squeaked Nora.
Michael straightened, looking pleased with himself. “Now why don’t you come round the front door like a reasonable person,” he said, tolerantly, “and --” He broke off, his face changing, as he got a good look at Leopold for the first time. “Why, my dear Leopold! What’s happened?”
Leopold clutched the wire recording briefcase behind his back. “Well, Professor, it’s sort of a long story, but --”
“Oh,” sighed Nora, “they found you out, didn’t they! Didn’t I tell you they would? You were on the front page of every newspaper for weeks during that murder trial! These days isn’t a person from here to Tallahassee who doesn’t know you make a habit of street-corner speechifying!”
“Found him out?” Michael frowned from Nora to Leopold. “What’s been going on here?”
“Oh, well,” said Nora, “you know that CIO case up in Jersey City – well, Leopold was curious about it, that’s all, and he decided to go up to see for himself what it was all. To help himself understand the case law of it, you know. He’s been doing all that reading, and aren’t we proud of him for it!”
“And, I suppose, to see if you could talk me into changing my mind about whether to take it up in the Supreme Court,” said Michael. “I see.”
“Only,” said Leopold, ruefully, “someone must have given old Boss Hague the tip-off about me, because no sooner did I get within spitting distance of City Hall than a couple of toughs came by to give me a real New Jersey welcome. I’ve spent the last week in jail cooling my heels on a trumped-up charge of public nuisance. But at least it gave some time for this ankle to get good enough to walk on –”
“Oh, Leopold,” wailed Nora, “not your ankle again?”
“-- and if this is the kind of treatment that an honest labor organizer is likely to receive under Boss Hague’s ordinance bills, then Professor, you’ve got to see how important it is that the Supreme Court officially sets the precedent that the right of free speech --”
“My dear Leopold, if you’re injured, let me –”
“No, I’ll go,” said Nora, hastily. She ran out the office and through the door, reappearing by Leopold’s side a moment later. As she bent down to take his arm over her shoulders, she kicked the recording briefcase under a copse of bushes by the window.
Leopold was still talking as she helped him through the front door and back into the Professor’s office. “-- and deliver a public rebuke to the anti-Communist fearmongering that local bureaucracy can use to chip away at the Constitutionally determined --”
“Leopold,” said Michael, half-fond, half-exasperated, and stepped forward. Leopold transferred his weight to Michael, with an arm clutching his shoulder; Michael lifted a hand up to lightly brush his fingers over the bruises on Leopold’s cheekbones. “My reckless young friend –what on earth are we to do with you?”
“What are we going to do with the people who did this to him, that’s what I want to know?” demanded Nora. Now that Leopold had been safely delivered to Michael’s arms, the full force of her fury had come to the surface. Her voice rose in pitch and volume. “Why, those low-down, dirty, cowardly – well, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do!”
And then she marched out, without, in fact, telling anybody what she was going to do.
“And what, pray tell,” said Michael, slapping a telegram down on the desk next to Leopold’s foot, “is one supposed to make of this?”
Leopold was sitting in a chair by the desk, with his ankle propped up on the table. He picked up the telegram and read out loud: “Darlings, stop. Gone fishing --”
“There’s no stop in it,” said Michael.
“The stop’s for effect. Gone fishing, stop. Back soon, stop. All love, Nora. Well!” He folded the telegram back up, and put it back on the table. “Looks like our Nora’s decided to try her hand a spot of ladder-building, after all.”
“Ladder-building? What do you mean by that? Where is she?”
“If I had to make a guess,” Leopold said, leaning back in his chair, “I’d say she was in New Jersey.”
“New Jersey!” Michael stared at him, appalled. “But --”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about her, Professor,” said Leopold, though the furrow in his brow suggested that he wasn’t entirely carefree himself. “She knows what she’s doing. Nora’s got a better head on her shoulders than either of us – and a better-looking one, too!”
Michael stopped, distracted. “Oh, well, there you sell yourself short, I think, Leopold. You’re a very handsome man, in your own way.”
Leopold laughed. “You said it yourself, I’m no oil painting. Especially not with these shiners on me.”
Michael considered this. “Well, perhaps not an oil painting. So heavy, and rather formal.” He surveyed Leopold, with a faint smile on his face. “But I’m learning to appreciate a watercolor.”
“Careful, Professor,” Leopold said, with an answering grin. “Nora would say you’re spoiling me.”
“Nora!” Recalled to his earlier dismay, Michael sat down in his chair with a thump. “I’ve two opinions to write this week and an article due, not to mention all the correspondence – how can I be expected to do without a secretary?”
“Well, nobody’s irreplaceable.”
“I suppose you’re suggesting I hire a temporary employee,” said Michael, morosely. “Some half-trained stenographer who has no idea of my methods, my manner of work --”
“What do we need with some half-trained stenographer when you can have a half-trained street-corner agitator at half the cost? I’m suggesting you use me.”
Michael eyed him dubiously. “You,” he echoed.
“Well --” Leopold wiggled his toes in the air demonstratively. “I’ll be underfoot anyway, won’t I? I may as well make myself useful while I’m stuck here with nothing else to do --”
“There’s always the zinnias.”
“Tilney would strangle me in my sleep if I went anywhere near the zinnias, and you know it. And I’ve been reading up on case law, you know --”
“Oh,” said Michael, “is that the snoring I’ve been hearing from the library.”
“Well, they don’t make it easy for a person to get through it, do they?” retorted Leopold. “I’m telling you, Professor, there’s a conspiracy against the common man in this country. If every Josef, Tony and Chaim really had a chance to understand the shape of the law as it exists – to see the sword that hangs over their heads, and figure out how to grasp the handle –”
“I see,” said Michael. “So what you want is a first look at my writing before it goes out, I suppose. Pass it through a Dilg-filter, until it meets with your approval.”
“Don’t get me wrong!” Leopold leaned forward as far as he could with his leg still propped up on his desk. “You know I think you’re a brilliant man.”
“Well!” said Michael, and put a hand up absently to stroke his beard – then put it down, in some confusion, as he remembered he no longer had a beard to stroke.
“You know,” said Leopold, “I do miss the beard – it was a fine beard – but it hid something very important about your face, Professor. That’s quite a pretty shade of pink there! You are a brilliant man, and you don’t need me to tell you it. Why shouldn’t I want the chance to get your words into my fingers, the way Nora does?”
“You’re not always so pleased with my words, Leopold,” said Michael, sober now.
“It’s not your words I don’t always like,” answered Leopold, “it’s where you aim them. The force they could have, if you knew where to put them! – well, you know it’s no use me promising not to argue with you at all, Professor –”
“I wouldn’t like you tongue-tied, Leopold,” murmured Michael.
“-- but I’ll do my best to make sure they get out the way you want them, at least until Nora comes back. The world runs on your kind of law, and I want to understand it – understand it the way you do, as a functional object. I’ve only ever felt it as a sharp edge balanced on my neck.” He paused, and then added, “And it could be considered my fault she’s gone, after all.”
“It certainly could.” Michael looked Leopold up and down once more, a glint of humor kindling in his eyes. “Well – I expect I’ll regret this, but all right – we’ll give it a try. As you say, you’re underfoot in any case.”
"Come over here, Professor," said Leopold.
"Why?" said Michael, but he came, obligingly, to stand behind Leopold's chair.
"Payment in advance, for all the work I'm about to do for you," said Leopold, promptly yanked him down for a very thorough kiss, before shoving him upwards again. "All right, Professor, up and at 'em! What's the first thing on the docket? Let's get going here -- you're a busy man!"
“Will you take the dictation, Leopold, or won’t you?”
“I’ll take it. I’ve taken it! It’s all written down here, every reasonable, rational, wrongheaded word of it. Professor, you can’t think --”
The familiar sounds of debate filled Nora’s ears as she quietly let herself into the office. She set down her briefcase on the nearest table, took a seat next to it, and waited for them to notice her.
“It doesn’t matter what I think, Leopold, it’s what’s written in the contract, and as much as I might wish it were possible to interpret it another way, it’s not within my conscience to do so. Nora,” Michael said, turning to appeal to her, “would you please explain to our impetuous friend that I do not single-handedly have the power to rewrite –”
He broke off, his face lighting up. “Why, Nora! You’re back!”
“I sure am,” said Nora, cheerfully, swinging her legs from the table. Michael came towards her eagerly; Leopold followed, moving more slowly on his injured ankle, but Nora held up her arms to fend them both off. “Uh-uh. Before we start getting all soupy here, let’s have a little show-and-tell.”
“But Nora,” said Michael, “where have you been this whole week?”
“I told you,” said Leopold, and smiled at her. “New Jersey. Was I right?”
“Well, I wasn’t just going to let Boss Hague go around thinking he could knock the stuffing out of anybody whose words he didn’t like, was I? At least not without the highest court in the country having something to say about it! Now listen to this, Professor --”
Nora flipped open the briefcase, carefully set the machine from Record to Play, and let the reel start rolling.
Nora’s voice, heavily interspersed with pops and fizzle, came clearly out from the machine.
Well, sir, now the court’s said you can’t stop the CIO from meeting here, I’m getting nervous –
Don’t you worry, Miss. I’m the law here in Jersey City, and I decide what happens here – me and nobody else. Courts or no courts, I’ll make sure those Communist rabble-rousers know they’re not welcome in our city, and they won’t ever be. I’ve got plenty of friends who’ll make sure it stays that way, too.
“Good heavens,” said Michael, appalled. “Really, he simply came out and said that – and to a complete stranger!”
“To the prettiest girl in Lochester,” said Leopold, dreamily.
“To a proud member of the American Federation of Labor,” Nora informed them, and smugly held up her AFL membership card. “By way of the American Federation of Teachers. Hague’s been cozying right up to the AFL ever since they split from the CIO – enemy of my enemy, you know – and he was more than happy to tell me all about it. And --” She glanced at Michael, suddenly defensive. “I know it may not be a hundred percent legal to secretly record a man who doesn’t know you’re doing it, but all I wanted was for you to hear the words from the man’s own mouth, is all –”
“What do you mean?” said Michael, startled. “It’s perfectly legal.”
Leopold and Nora both stared at him.
“It’s legal?” said Leopold.
“Making a recording of somebody who doesn’t know anything about it?” said Nora.
“I’m not aware of a single law against it,” said Michael.
Nora considered this. “You know, somehow that makes me feel worse about doing it?”
“Better illegal in a good cause than to be sleazy but smiled on, you mean,” said Leopold.
“Something like that.” Nora shrugged, and then smiled up Michael. “So I guess we didn’t need to have gone to all that trouble to keep Leopold’s little device secret, after all. It wasn’t that we wanted to keep you out of things, honest – only it didn’t seem a Supreme Court Justice ought to know about anything that wasn’t completely on the up-and-up, except when you’re coming down on it in court.”
“Like,” Leopold said, “you’re going to do with Boss Hague – I hope.”
“Well, I must admit –” Michael sighed, looking from Nora to Leopold. “Yes, I’ll put the case up for consideration to the rest of the Court. It’s a joint decision, as you know very well, but I’ll do what I can to see it goes on the docket for our next session. Even though --” He looked at them, ruefully. “-- I almost feel that I, personally, ought to recuse myself once it goes in. A Justice really ought to be able to consider a case dispassionately, and when I saw those bruises on your face, Leopold – well, if Nora hadn’t leapt so immediately to your defense I daresay I might have done something rash myself.”
“Then I’m doubly glad I went,” said Nora, stoutly. “You’ve got your evidence now, Professor. There’s no arguing with the kind of man Hague is, and the way he twists the law in his own favor. Oh, and I suppose he’ll go on doing that no matter what you do – but at least you can give the unions a little more protection, and make it a little harder for anybody else to do the same thing!”
Leopold leaned back and beamed at them. “That’s one opinion I’ll be more than happy to type up.”
Michael blinked. “Oh, well – I’ve truly appreciated your contributions, Leopold, but surely now that Nora's returned it won't be necessary any longer, will it?”
Nora and Leopold exchanged a long look.
Nora said, slowly, “It sounded to me like you both were enjoying yourselves awfully, when I walked in, you know. And if Leopold really wants to learn more about the law, there’s worse places to do it from than the chair behind that desk.”
“I wouldn’t take your job, Nora,” said Leopold, seriously. “If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a scab.”
“Oh, well, I know that, you loon. But I didn’t come to Washington, DC because I especially wanted to be a secretary, you know! I came because --” She flushed, but went on, gamely. “-- well, because Michael, you’ve got to be here, and neither of us have anywhere much else to be, and – and I suppose it would be funny, anyone else doing all your typing, and being here all the time, who didn’t understand about – well, you know, about Sweetbrook and everything. But if Leopold wants to do it, I wouldn’t mind being a teacher again. Really, I wouldn’t. And –” A mischievous grin suddenly transformed her face. “If you two got all your arguing out of the way during the day, maybe I’d have a chance to get a word in edgewise when I got home afterwards!”
“Well!” said Michael, rather at a loss for words. “Well!” He looked at the two of them, and then held out his hands; Nora took one, and Leopold the other. “Well, if you’ve worked it all out so reasonably – who am I to protest?”
“A perfect lamb, you are!” said Leopold. “Watch it, Professor – I wouldn’t like you tongue-tied, either.”
“Don’t worry,” said Nora, “it won’t last!”
And, indeed, it didn’t.