Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Judge J. Howard Sundermann, Jr.
First Appellate District of Ohio




Judges often now seem to be portrayed as lazy, corrupt, biased and arrogant. Of course there are some judges who are like this, but not to the extent that the movies would suggest.

Feature article

Judges in Film

by Judge J. Howard Sundermann, Jr.

The change in portrayal of lawyers since the early 1970's from generally positive to generally negative has been demonstrated by Professor Asimow (Bad Lawyers in the Movies, 24 NOVA L.R. 533 (2000)). Judges have not escaped the change to more negative depictions. But, unlike lawyers in the pre-1970 era, judges in films were usually faceless people sitting behind the bench who occasionally nodded sagely when an attorney would ask to approach a witness or introduce a piece of evidence. Attorney Lawrence Welch does a wonderful job as the judge in Anatomy of a Murder, but he is not really a part of the story. The judge in Miracle on 34th Street plays a kindly bumbling character, but he is not central to the main story line.

An exception to this, in my opinion, is the best film ever made about judges, Judgment at Nuremberg. This film deals with one of the later Nuremberg trials that had only American judges presiding. It is particularly interesting because the defendants are four German judges who presided over German courts during the Nazi regime. Three of the defendants were considered Nazi hacks, but one, played by Burt Lancaster, was a brilliant jurist who detested Hitler but nonetheless went along with the regime in power. Of course, there is overwhelming evidence of atrocities and crimes against humanity presented against the defendants, but the American judges are confronted with the theories of the defense as well as a changing political situation in post-war Europe. For instance, counsel for the defendants were enforcing laws passed by the Nazis, who were the legitimate government in power at the time, and argues that they they should not be held responsible for enforcing these laws. The defendants also claim that the public was better served by them staying at their jobs as judges because they were able to mitigate the application of the Nazi laws. If they had resigned, worse people would have been put in their place. In addition to legal arguments, there is outside pressure on the American judges to go easy on the defendants, as America needs the help of the German people against a growing Russian threat in the new cold war. The film intelligently explores serious legal and moral questions about responsibility, and how they weigh on the judges who must decide them. The final opinion, delivered by Spencer Tracy as the presiding American judge, is excellent.

There have been two major changes in the treatment of judges in film since the 1970s. First, we are now part of the main story line to a far greater degree, if not the main character in the film. Second, unfortunately, the changes have not been to our advantage, for the most part. Judges often now seem to be portrayed as lazy, corrupt, biased and arrogant. Of course there are some judges who are like this, but not to the extent that the movies would suggest. In Presumed Innocent, the judge plays a prominent role in the film and his past corruption and sexual misconduct are an important part of the case and the defense. In Suspicion, the judge himself is actually the murderer in the trial that he is presiding over. Perhaps the worst depiction is And Justice for All, a major motion picture staring Al Pacino (not as a judge). Two judges are main characters in the film. One is presented as suicidal and crazy. The other is portrayed as uncaring, nasty, arrogant, and guilty of rape in a concluding trial scene. They are the only judges presented in the film.

The judge in The Verdict is portrayed throughout the film as lazy and incompetent. For reasons unexplained in the film, he is heavily biased against the plaintiff both in pretrial rulings and during the trial itself. Justice is done in spite of the judge.

Rainmaker has two judges featured, on good and one bad. We meet the bad one first; in court he is impatient and rude. In a scene in his chambers, he is presented as being in collusion with an insurance company lawyer to settle a case for far less that its value. In choreographed trips to the bathroom, the judge indicates that he will dismiss the suit and then the lawyer offers a modest settlement. The second judge appears as the trial judge who is aware of defense counsel tricks and gives the plaintiff a prompt and fair trial.

My choice for the funniest legal film of all time, My Cousin Vinny, has a judge featured who is a stickler for procedure and decorum. He is a foil for the more "relaxed" style of the main character, the defense lawyer. Even though the judge is sometimes harsh when enforcing courtroom discipline and a little hard to live with, the judge is presented as well versed in the law and interested in giving fair trials to those in his court.

Placing judges into moral dilemmas is a common device used in modern films. Sometimes the dilemma is the primary plot of the film and sometimes it is a secondary issue, although the resolution of the dilemma could change the conclusion of the film. An example of a moral dilemma as a secondary issues occurs in the film Night Falls on Manhattan. A prosecutor, the main character, has made his reputation from the trial and conviction of a brutal cop killer and drug dealer. As it turns out, the arresting officer later discovers that the arrest warrant used to enter the killer's premises to affect his arrest had expired by one day. The prosecutor becomes aware of this discrepancy. The officer tells the trial judge. The judge knows that if he acknowledges the improper warrant, a vicious killer will be released and a brave policeman will be in trouble. The camera shows the judge at his desk, sitting across from the policeman, writing a new warrant and dating it the day of the arrest as he tells the prosecutor on the phone that there must be some confusion, he remember very clearly making out the warrant on the day of the arrest and the original warrant is right in front of him. The judge is shown in the film as making a choice of the lesser two evils, and I suspect the public would agree with his choice.

In Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, the judge is the central character in the film and he is shown dealing with the famous case where a group of young black boys are falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in the 1930's. It is widely believed in that community that the defendants are guilty; Judge Horton probably shares this belief as the trial begins. During the State's case, a doctor gives medical testimony barely consistent with the theory of rape. The prosecutor then tells the court that another doctor examined the girls but his testimony would be substantially the same as the first doctor, so he asks to excuse the second doctor from testifying. With no objection from the defense, the court grants the request. The second doctor approaches Judge Horton in the hallway and asks to speak to him. After some reluctance, Judge Horton agrees to speak with the doctor and they step into the men's room to talk. The doctor explains that based on his examination, there is no question in his mind that the girls were not raped. Judge Horton tells the doctor that he must testify to this at the trial, but the young doctor says he cannot so testify. The doctor explains that he could never go back to his practice or live in his hometown if he testified for the defense. The doctor tells the judge that he will deny everything he just said if he is forced to testify. This is Judge Horton's dilemma. He can call the doctor to the stand, declare a mis-trial, or proceed with the trial. Judge Horton chooses to proceed with the trial without mentioning the incident, because he believes that as the trial unfolds, the evidence against the defendant will be so thoroughly discredited that the jury will acquit. But when the jury comes back with a guilty verdict, the judge is faced with a new dilemma. A motion for a new trial is filed. Horton could easily overrule the motion on the ground the there was conflicting testimony and the jury believed that of the State's witnesses. Granting the motion would likely end his career and ostracize him with many of his neighbors and friends. But the judge grants the motion and orders a new trial. A new judge is appointed, and he presides over the subsequent conviction with a heavy hand, and Judge Horton is handily defeated in the next election.

Michael Douglas plays a young judge in Star Chamber. The judge has presided over a series of difficult Fourth Amendment issues where, in following the law, he must release defendants whose guilt seems apparent. When one of the defendants is charged with the torture and murder of another young boy after his release, the judge goes to see his friend and mentor, an older judge, who has hinted at a solution to these problems. The older judge tells the Douglas character that many of the judges have shared in his frustration and have come to the conclusion that the judges are the "law," and that they have an obligation to solve this conflict between the law and justice. He explains that the judges have formed a secret court to consider the cases where the law seems to have perverted the system. This court hears the facts, renders a verdict, and most importantly carries out sentences. Douglas is asked to join. The next scene shows the judges meeting at night and hearing a case where a guilty violent defendant had to be released due to a procedural issue. The judges in turn vote guilty, including Douglas, who has joined them.

It appears there is no turning back from the judge's new role in film as an important if not leading character. There is a new television show in development where the United States Supreme Court is the setting for a West Wing type drama with fictional justices as the main characters.

Posted March 13, 2002

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