Written by Guest Blogger: Judge Robert McGahey.
I love movies. And I love movies about the law. (TV shows, too.) And from teaching at programs around the country, I know I’m not the only one. For years, I’ve used film and TV in ethics presentations at various NITA programs. (Huge props here to Mark Caldwell, my frequent cohort in those presentations And even gets huger props to Mark for doing all the technical stuff to create those presentations.) I’ve volunteered to write an occasional column about trial work, movies and TV. My goals: to get you to see these movies or shows if you haven’t seen them, to maybe make you think about them in a different way, and perhaps to start a dialogue with other cinephiles in the NITA family.
That said, let’s start with the best and most obvious place: To Kill a Mockingbird (Universal Pictures, 1962.). Mockingbird consistently ranks first on lists of best movies about the law, whether those lists are put together by lawyers or non-lawyers; it properly led off the ABA Journal’s list of the 25 Greatest Legal Movies in 2008. It’s a movie that deals with difficult questions: race, mental illness, the difficulties of childhood and the struggles of parenting. It’s a film that rewards watching and re-watching. But there is one reason, above all others, to watch this film. What is it?
The answer is simple: Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch. When the American Film Institute put together its list of Greatest Movie Heroes and Villains in 2003, Finch was voted the Greatest Movie Hero of the 20th Century. (Hannibal Lecter was the Greatest Villain.) Think about that: in a country where lawyers are not always popular – to put it mildly – a lawyer is our greatest movie hero. The accolade is well-deserved.
Atticus Finch is a small-town lawyer in rural Alabama in the ‘30’s, asked to defend an African-American against an accusation of sexual assault on a white woman. Has there ever been a more sure-fire losing case? Given the atmosphere surrounding the case, Finch endangers not only himself but his two children as well. Yet his defense of Tom Robinson is not perfunctory, not just going through the motions. It is aggressive, but principled. It is passionate, but not emotional. Most of all, it is not only brave, but noble. It is, in short, the essence of what it means to be an advocate. I teach Trial Advocacy classes at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and when I show my frequently cynical law students Finch’s closing argument in class, even those who’ve seen it before sit stunned by its power. I then tell them gently: “If you want to know what lawyers do, that’s what lawyers do.”
But, given the title of this column, let’s turn to another beloved movie lawyer: Vincent Gambini (played by Joe Pesci) in My Cousin Vinny (20th Century Fox, 1992.) Atticus and Vinny have some things in common.
Both Finch and Gambini take on apparently hopeless cases with defendants who are marginalized — or flat out rejected – by the community. Both mount aggressive defenses (although Finch’s is based on knowledge and principle and Vinny’s is based on bluster and bravado.) Neither of them gives up, even in the face of overwhelming odds (although Finch’s persistence is based on bravery and Vinny’s is based on stupidity.) Both conduct effective and telling cross examinations of witnesses who are key to the case.
But of course, there are differences between them, too. And it’s the differences that make lawyers love them both. Here you’ll have to indulge my dipping into analysis as it might be made by the third partner in my mythical firm – Sigmund Freud.
I’d like to suggest that lawyers love Vinny because he’s a lawyer’s Id: he has no filter. Vinny does and says everything in court that we wish we could say, but don’t have the chutzpah. Two examples spring most readily to mind: his response to a critical comment about his clothes from Judge Haller (played by the great Fred Gwynne): “You were serious about that?” (which gets him held in contempt and sent to the county lockup.) And the never-to-be-forgotten opening statement: “Everything that guy just said was b*******t.” Ask any trial lawyer – or any trial judge for that matter: every lawyer has wanted to make both of those statements in court and on the record.
But if Vinny is a lawyer’s Id, Atticus Finch is a lawyer’s Superego, our conscience. Finch does and says everything we know we should say and should do in court, but don’t have the courage to do and say. It’s that level of moral courage that makes Atticus Finch every trial lawyer’s role model. It’s that model we should hold in our hearts when we face a difficult case. After all, “advocate” comes from the Latin: “to be called to speak for.” And Atticus Finch shows us exactly what that means.