Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Judge Jernigan Debuts Her Second Novel

Judge Stacey C.G. Jernigan is best known for the writing she publishes from her office at 1100 Commerce Street. I was able to locate 270 of her opinions on LEXIS. Some of my favorites are In re Tinsley, 2010 Bankr. LEXIS 4156 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 20100 about a cowboy trying to keep the ranch he inherited from his father and In re Pearson, 2020 Bankr. LEXIS 972 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 2020) in which Judge Jernigan cited an article that I wrote. Lee v. Weatherford (In re Weatherford), 2022 Bankr. LEXIS 144 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 2020) is an opinion about whether a debt arising from a bar brawl was nondischargeable and is just the type of case a Texas judge might encounter.  However, Judge Jernigan is also a novelist. This summer I have enjoyed reading He Watches All My Paths (2019) and Hedging Death (2022).

The lead character in both books is Judge Avery Lasiter, a federal bankruptcy judge married to a police officer who has a King Charles Spaniel. Judge Jernigan is quick to point out that even though the characters are similar to her real-life family, they are fiction. However, Judge Jernigan shows the wisdom of writing what she knows about.

The first book, He Watches All My Paths, is about a federal bankruptcy judge terrorized by a disgruntled party.  She receives threats at home, on her office voicemail, on a pad left in the courtroom and even on a family vacation in Portugal. This is a very personal story that could have happened to Judge Jernigan or one of her colleagues.  (She discusses the case where an angry lawyer killed one of her Haynes & Boone colleagues as well as several other judges and lawyers). Not to give away too much, but the judge survives so that she can return in Hedging Death

Hedging Death shares part of its plot with the In re Life Partners case (which was not Judge Jernigan's but was pending in the Northern District), but also gives intimate glimpses into what goes on in court and in chambers. In this case, a trial over responsibility for a Ponzi scheme is interrupted when one of the minor players notices that the funds were not being squandered but rather redirected to another entity leasing the former Superconducting Supercollider in Ellis County, Texas. Meanwhile, Officer Max has retired from the force and is tracking down a hedge fund manager who faked his own death to collect the insurance money. The hedge fund guy was involved in raising money for the Ponzi scheme so the two stories start to connect. The plot also involves Mexican cartels, viatical settlements, and a scheme to kill off retired people who have sold their insurance policies so that the cartel can get its money. There are numerous other plot twists and the bad guys from the first book play an important role.

The writing styles for the two books are quite different. The first book is very personal and when the narrator is addressing the reader, it is clear that it is Judge Jernigan speaking through her alter ego's voice. In Hedging Death, there is a consistent third-party fly on the wall narrator who observes various events, whether it is Judge Lassiter explaining viatical settlements to the "kids," her collection of interns, law clerks and courtroom staff, or observing a meeting between shady characters that happened years earlier. He Watches All My Paths would not have worked with an omniscient narrator, since the thrill lies in viewing the danger through the eyes of the judge. On the other hand, Hedging Death, requires a wider lens to take in all of its varied subplots.   

The books are also fun for bankruptcy nerds looking for common tropes. You can't practice in Texas without having a missing cow case or an impoverished heir/heiress who is not sure where all the money went. I am thankful to Judge Jernigan for writing about the world of bankruptcy. For some reason, John Grisham and Jay Brandon, two of my favorite writers of lawyer fiction, have never ventured into our world. If they did, I don't think they could provide as insightful of a view as the one provided by Judge Avery Lassiter. 

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