Short Story: “Judicial Restraint”

When the moment comes, what will you do?

“Judicial Restraint”
by P. Orin Zack

“You’ve got to hide me!”

Elliot peered again through the peephole at the man whose insistent knocking had awakened him. The distorted fisheye view of his darkened porch was blocked suddenly, first by a bulbous nose, and then by a bloodshot eye.

“I’m your neighbor, for god’s sake, Elliot. Let me in!”

“John?” he said, suspiciously.

“Yes, it’s me. Haven’t you heard the news?” The man in the fisheye stepped back and looked out into the street. “They’ll be here, soon. Come on. Let me in!”

Eliot tied his bathrobe and opened the door. “What news? I’ve been sound asleep.”

John, who wore jeans and an old law school t-shirt, pushed past him and headed towards the living room. “I’ll show you. But you might want to get yourself a stiff drink.”

“A what?” John said as he caught up. “You know I don’t drink.”

His neighbor snapped the TV on and clicked over to the news channel. “I can’t think of a better reason to start.”

“—but the other two members have not yet been located.” The reporter stood in front of the White House, it’s façade partially obscured by what appeared to be an array of military equipment and soldiers. “For those of you who are just tuning in, the President has formally charged the Supreme Court with treason as a result of its recent decision to permit accused terrorists to challenge their incarceration in the courts.”

Elliot fell into a chair and looked up at John, whose fingers were twitching. “But don’t you clerk for Ju—.”

John grimaced. “Just watch.”

“As you can see behind me,” the reporter continued, “the military are setting up camp on the White House lawn. They’ve been called in to defend the president and the White House against the crowds that are expected to start gathering in protest by daybreak. Traffic on the Internet has spiked due to all of the frantic organizing. The president has not yet invoked National Security Directive 51, but is reportedly prepared to do so should the need arise. Invoking the directive would place complete control of the government into the hands of the Chief Executive, and put the entire nation under martial law, effectively shutting down the Internet as well. But for the moment, all we know is that city and state law enforcement agencies across the country have been directed to locate and detain all members of the judicial branch for questioning. We have been asked to remind our viewers that it is a federal crime to harbor a fugitive from justice. So if you know someone who works in the court system, do not, I repeat, do not attempt to hide them. If you do, you will be declared a domestic enemy combatant and taken into custody yourself.”

Elliot grabbed the remote and hit mute. “Thanks, John. So now I’m a criminal for letting you in. What do they want everyone rounded up for, anyway?”

“They’re afraid that liberal judges and their aides will attempt something foolish.” He started pacing, nervously glancing at the window. “Now that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of citizens having weapons, it’s likely that an armed rebellion will spring up. Lawyers aren’t known for being especially good shots, you know. A lot of innocent people could get hurt.”

“Oh. I see.” Elliot glanced back and forth between his neighbor and the TV, which was now showing archive footage of the two missing justices. “So its all in the name of security, then, of protecting the people from unintentional harm.”

“Well, yeah. No-one would get hurt if they just turned themselves in when the police, or the FBI or whatever came to pick them up.”

“In that case, what are you so worried about? You’ve got nothing to hide, have you? From what I’ve seen, you’re pretty much the poster boy for the forces of law and order, aren’t you?”

He nodded uncomfortably. “I guess. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be too pleased with my boss. After all, Judge Farmer has made quite a few decisions that went against the… that the president’s team wouldn’t like.”

“I don’t really see how that matters. Judges aren’t supposed to be loyal to a political party. They’re supposed to be impartial.”

“Supposed to be, yeah, but we all know that most judges tend to favor one side or the other. And lately, Judge Farmer’s been spitting in their eye an awful lot.”

“Which, I suppose, means that his clerk leans the same way?”

John straightened. “Of course not. Did you think I was going to betray my principles simply because my boss doesn’t have any? No. If anything, I’ve been stridently opposed to some of the choices he’s made recently. I’ve told him as much, too.”

“And you’re afraid of what will happen if you’re found? Why don’t you just give yourself up and tell them what they want to hear? I don’t get it.”

Before John had a chance to answer, the phone in the kitchen rang. Elliot looked towards it. “Who’d be calling at this hour?”

“Someone who’s seen the news, probably.”

While Elliot went to get the phone, John turned the sound back up. The news channel was doing a round robin of stand-ups from reporters at their various local affiliates. Flash crowds had erupted at the offices of officials supportive of the administration across the country. Some of them had already turned violent, but so far it had all been spray paint and rocks. No shots had been reported. Then, in the midst of an interview with some blue-state city’s Chief of Police, the network yanked the signal back. The reporter who had spoken earlier returned, only now he was in front of a video screen showing an annotated map of Washington, D.C., with the White House, the Supreme Court Building and the halls of the House and Senate highlighted in red.

“I’m speaking with General Kurgin, in the mobile command center on Pennsylvania Avenue. Sir, what have you been told to expect out here this morning?”

The general finished speaking with someone off camera, and then looked seriously at the reporter. “In a word, chaos. Supporters of the rights of terrorists have reportedly planned to storm the White House shortly after daybreak. We have already shut down the D.C. transit system in order to make it more difficult for them to organize, and checkpoints have been set up at strategic points leading to the capitol district. All vehicles heading in this direction will be stopped, and everyone in them will have to step outside and produce ID. We’re using the national terror database to screen everyone approaching this area. We urge all civilians to stay in their homes. Do not risk your safety by attempting to either join the protest or get close enough to watch. We have no choice but to consider anyone in the area to be a suspect. If everyone stays calm and does not try to cause trouble, nobody will get hurt.”

Elliot returned from the kitchen, so John muted the set again. “Who was that?”

“Barbara, from down the block. She’s calling everyone to make sure they get the word. It wouldn’t do to have people trying to go to work this morning, after all.”

“At this hour? There’s plenty of time for people to find out what’s going on once they wake up. What’s the rush?”

“Haven’t you been paying attention? By morning, we could all be under martial law! I don’t know about you, but that’s not the kind of thing I’d like to find out about after the fact. There’s too much to do.”

John looked askance. “Too much to do?”

“Well, yeah. We’ll need to take stock of who’s got what, lay in supplies while we can.”

“So you figure this might last a while.”

Elliot nodded.

“In that case, you can vouch for my patriotism when the police come looking for me. That might make them feel a bit more comfortable with the fact I’ve been clerking for a traitor.”

“When in actual fact,” Elliot said reassuringly, “you’re loyal to the people who are running this country.”


There was a knock at the door. Elliot turned to get it. “That’s probably Barbara now. She had something I needed.” He returned a moment later, and pointed it at John.

Copyright 2008 by P. Orin Zack


One thought on “Short Story: “Judicial Restraint”

  1. Cool story. I like the fast paced dialogue. I thought you caught the reporter and general’s tone. Nice ending too. Gotta love betrayal.

    Check out some of my stories on my blog ( and let me know what you think.

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