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Novel does no honor to judge

Ex-clerk skewers Phila. jurist.

Rao's novel , optioned for a film.
Rao's novel , optioned for a film.Read more

Does the devil wear polyester - at least at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia?

May it please the readership, we here present the facts in Saira Rao v. The Honorable Dolores K. Sloviter, now stirring big buzz on legal blogs, which include such wiseguy sites as "Above the Law" and "Underneath Their Robes."

Saira Rao, 33, graduate of New York University Law School, daughter of Indian American parents, is a former news producer for Washington's CBS affiliate and Miami's Fox News station. She held a prestigious clerkship from 2002 to 2003 with Judge Sloviter, 75, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia.

Rao, who grew up in Richmond, Va., has just published Chambermaid (Grove, $22), a highly entertaining, often insightful, frequently sarcastic and at times extremely nasty first novel about folks at the Third Circuit.

It's narrated by Sheila Raj, an Indian American graduate of Columbia Law School, and former TV news producer from Reston, Va., who serves a year as law clerk to famously liberal Judge Helga Friedman of the Third Circuit. It depicts Judge Friedman as a "sociopathic, homicidal, bipolar jurist" and "toxic bitch."

In the novel, Sheila, who lives in the "gayborhood" around 12th and Spruce and eats at familiar places like Rouge and Ralph's, rarely lets up on the manifold horrors of Friedman, an ex-University of Pennsylvania law professor appointed by President Gerald Ford to be the first woman to sit on the Third Circuit. (Sloviter, a former Temple Law School professor, was appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 to be the first woman to sit on the Third Circuit.)

Raj describes Friedman as "definitely insane," the "craziest person" at the federal courthouse at Sixth and Market, a "robed rascal who wouldn't hesitate blowing up anybody who failed to give her due respect."

In the world of the federal judiciary, where no lawyer speaks disrespectfully of a judge, this ranks with mooning the Supreme Court during oral argument.

Reached by phone at her home, Judge Sloviter is polite and dismissive about the book: "All I know is it must present an unfavorable picture of me because I've gotten letters from law clerks and judges saying they commiserate, and that it's not true. I haven't read it, and I don't intend to."

In Chambermaid, Judge Friedman screams for Sheila as "SHEEEERAAAA!!!" or "SHAYYYLLLLA!!!" or by other near-miss names. Among her favored verbal leitmotifs are "NO! NO! NO!" and "I AM A FEDERAL JUDGE!"

Friedman is always reminding her clerks that she is "rilly, rilly busy." She spits chicken salad on them as she speaks. She informs clerks that they cannot use the phone, cruise the Internet, go to lunch, take vacations or get special dispensation when family members die.

Friedman's clerks frequently quit before their year is up, almost unheard of with such prestigious posts. Friedman asks them, "DO YOU THINK I'M A HOSTILE BITCH?"

In the book's plot, which revolves around a death-penalty case, Friedman hates her colleague, Judge Linda Adams, the wife of Philadelphia Mayor Joe Adams, "widely credited with the city's rebirth." (Marjorie O. Rendell, wife of former Philadelphia Mayor and now Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, is a judge on the Third Circuit.)

When a colleague gets a Supreme Court nomination - Third Circuit Judge Samuel Alito did so a few years ago - Friedman's reaction is a string of expletives.

Sheila's opening physical portraits of Friedman are exceedingly mean. The judge has "vertical eyebrows. Penciled in. Squinty eyes. Lips curled . . . bright red lipstick, which was curiously everywhere but on her lips."

When Raj's "virgin eyes" greet Friedman, we get another harsh photo: "About four feet ten inches tall . . . crooked feet, polyester pantsuit, sunglasses the size of Fat Albert's behind, and a massive bun atop her tiny head."

In the course of Raj's clerkship, Friedman hurls a Supreme Court casebook at her, hitting her "smack in the face." She insults Raj, getting her ethnicity wrong at the same time. ("Do they not teach you English in Pakistan?")

Sheila, in turn, refers to Friedman's office as "the torture chamber" and thinks, in regard to her boss, "You intimidate, frustrate, belittle, humiliate, and gross out everyone around you." Sheila wets her pants during one tense confrontation.

During Raj's clerkship year, Friedman's husband, Bob, is dying. Raj's account is unsympathetic: "The word on the street was that he was a billion years old and had been trying to knock off for years. In addition to being deaf and suffering from dementia, Bob had lived through ten or so heart attacks, and each time, the judge apparently would order the doctors to electrocute [sic] him back to life."

Judge Sloviter's husband, Henry Sloviter, a longtime professor at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, died in 2003. Asked if she had a "bad relationship" with Rao during their time together, Sloviter said, "Not that I know of. She was my clerk in what was a bad year for me. It was the year my husband had gotten sick and died."

In the book, Friedman, who is 72, falls asleep on the bench and "forgets about 80 percent of everything." But she's also portrayed as a canny, meticulous jurist who comes out on top in the death-penalty case, with Sheila noting her "stellar performance on the bench."

Sheila's venom in Chambermaid never targets Friedman's hardworking devotion to her job ("She'd come in if she were dead," cracks one clerk). Instead, it focuses repeatedly on her behavior toward underlings. ("You, you, you're so stupid you make me want to die. Get out!")

Yet over its 272 smart-alecky and sometimes mean-spirited pages, Chambermaid also offers eviscerating portraits of Friedman's secretaries, other clerks, courtroom workers, the courthouse cafeteria, Dunkin' Donuts counterpeople, and elite law students as super-competitive, whiny, risk-averse, hierarchy-obsessed lemmings - Sheila included.

If Friedman is both a witch and a word that rhymes with it, Sheila Raj gives the judge a run for her money. Late in the book, Sheila lies to the ACLU about her experience with Friedman to get a post-clerkship job.

Rao agrees that Sheila Raj is over the top, but makes no apologies for Chambermaid. Chatting at a Greek restaurant in Manhattan, she stresses the serious impetus for her novel: outrage that federal judges aren't held accountable for behavior toward coworkers, and anger that prospective clerks can't get negative information about federal judges because law schools fear the judges.

"I actually just got pissed off," said Rao, who left her New York law firm, Cleary Gottlieb, in November when the subject of her book became known, and, she said, the firm made her feel unwelcome.

"I understand why law clerks can't talk about case deliberations," she said. "But why can't law clerks talk about the personalities, the cultural aspects, of being a clerk? Why is there a huge blanket of silence over the third branch of our federal government? . . . I just became obsessed with this idea."

The lawyer for Grove, her publisher, has advised Rao not to speak about which aspects of Chambermaid, whose film rights have been optioned, are taken directly from her experience with Sloviter. The judge, not having read the book, would not comment on specifics.

"You know," said Sloviter, a native Philadelphian who graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School (fourth in her 1956 class), "I guess I've had maybe close to a hundred law clerks, and it's not surprising that one or two hated me."

Asked if, given the gathering storm, she might soon feel she has to read Chambermaid despite her plaint that "I just have too much else to read," Sloviter makes things clear: "I haven't read it. I don't intend to. I really don't care. OK?"

Meanwhile, legal and other blogs are filling up with people taking sides. Former Sloviter clerks and more are praising or bashing the book, thanking Rao for breaching a code of silence or castigating her and defending Sloviter.

Thriller novelist (and Inquirer columnist) Lisa Scottoline, who clerked for Sloviter for two years, said: "I think the world of Judge Sloviter." She describes her as "smart and kind and tireless" in the work she has done for women in Philadelphia. Scottoline has not looked at Rao's novel, but thinks Sloviter does not remotely deserve such treatment.

Tonight, Rao will read from her book at the Barnes & Noble store in Center City. Tomorrow, she will appear before the South Asian Bar Association's Wilmington branch. On Aug. 2, she will make an appearance before the association's Philadelphia chapter, where she is expected to confront some old Third Circuit colleagues.

At least one passage in Chambermaid can certainly be relegated to fantasy.

"What we discuss in here doesn't leave these doors," Friedman tells her clerks. "Then again, I trust that you people never ever speak of what happens in here with the outside world."

If You Go

Saira Rao reads from her first novel, "Chambermaid."