The Pelican Brief starts with the assassination of two different Supreme Court Justices. Liberal Justice Rosenberg is killed at home, while the conservative Justice Jenson is killed inside an explicit theater. The circumstances surrounding their deaths and the deaths themselves shock politically split nation.
Darby Shaw, a law student, decides to investigate the two justices' records and pending cases. She writes a report guessing Victor Mattiece, an oil tycoon wanting to drill for oil on Louisiana swamp land which is a major habitat of an endangered breed of pelicans, was the one that wanted the assasinations. A court case on appeal for him to gain access to the land is expected to go to the Supreme Court.
The two justices killed had a history of environmentalism — the only thing they agreed on — and thus Darby surmises that Mattiece hoped to turn the case around for himself eliminated the two justices, thus leaving his friend the President in a position to appoint new justices more likely to rule in his favor.
Darby shows the brief, which becomes known as the 'Pelican Brief' to her law professor and lover, Thomas Callahan, who shows it to his Washington-based friend, Gavin Verheek, a lawyer working for the FBI. Both men are killed soon after.
Afraid for her life, Darby flees. She contacts the Washington Post reporter Gray Grantham, and the two set out to prove her report is correct.
Everyone quickly take sides. The President and his Chief of Staff try to cover up his connection to Mattiece, which would be politically damaging. The FBI wants to bring in Darby to protect her and to verify her story. Friends of Mattiece try to kill her to make sure the cover-up holds.
Soon, every piece of the story is in place. Grantham gets a videotaped testimony from a lawyer called "Garcia" and a document that points to involvement by Garcia's law firm which worked for Mattiece. With this evidence, Grantham and Darby approach the Post newspaper chief editor....
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