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NITA Movie Review: “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!”

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

andJusticeForAllI was admitted to the bar 40 years ago this month; in fact, I’m writing this review on the anniversary of my swearing-in.  I went to law school between 1971 and 1974, when the DU Law School was right across the street from the courthouse where I now work. The courthouse looked much different then: many fewer women lawyers or judges, suits with really wide lapels and bell-bottom pants, ties as wide as tablecloths, and lots and lots of hair, on men and women alike.

Many ‘60’s and ‘70’s law students had a love/hate relationship with what they were studying and what they would do after graduation.  On one hand, they saw the law and the courts as corrupt, venal, another manifestation of “The Man’s” power structure.  On the other hand, they hoped – and believed – that the law and the courts could be vehicles for finding out the truth and bringing justice about. Perhaps no movie dealt with those conflicting feelings better than 1972’s And Justice for All. 

And Justice for All stars Al Pacino as Arthur Kirkland, a criminal defense lawyer in Baltimore, Maryland, attempting to do his best for his clients, but caught up in a system of corrupt judges, indifferent prosecutors, massive pressure to plea bargain cases and a general cynicism about the entire legal process. We see Arthur thrown in jail for contempt after taking a swing at a tyrannical judge who keeps Arthur’s wrongfully jailed client locked up on a technicality. We see that wrongfully incarcerated client react against his treatment in a shocking way.  We see another of Arthur’s clients erroneously sentenced to jail instead of probation – and then taking a drastic and heartbreaking step. We see one of Arthur’s friends hauled before the ethics committee on ridiculous charges. Through it all, we see Arthur trying – and failing – to maintain his professionalism and his hope.

The film primary focus is on Arthur being blackmailed into taking on the defense of Judge Fleming (played by John Forsythe of Dynasty and Charlie’s Angels fame), who’s accused of a vicious sexual assault. This is certainly an odd match-up, since Fleming is the judge Arthur earlier threw a punch at. Fleming is rich (he owns a helicopter), arrogant and stunningly corrupt.  He is also absolutely sure that he’ll be acquitted. His contempt for the legal process is stunning and Arthur has to struggle mightily to provide Fleming with the defense that a lawyer is ethically required to provide.  Eventually the case goes to trial – and it’s here that Arthur delivers one of the most amazing opening statements in the history of legal movies.  I won’t give away the details, but after being told that he’s out of order for what he’s just said, Arthur bursts out with a famous and oft-quoted rant: “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They’re out of order!” What follows brings into sharp focus the conflict between a lawyer’s duty to his client and his duty to seeing justice done.

Al Pacino received a Best Actor nomination for his performance as Arthur Kirkland.  John Forsythe makes an eminently hate-able villain.  There are also fine performances by Jeffery Tambor (of TV’s Transparent), Lee Strasberg, Christine Lahti, and by the seemingly ever-present Jack Warden as Judge Rayford, a jurist with a death wish and a very serious belief in the Second Amendment. (Warden pops up in many legal movies, including 12 Angry Men and The Verdict.) Norman Jewison directed and the writers, Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson, were also Oscar-nominated.

It’s hard to classify And Justice for All. You’ll see it described as a comedy, as a drama, as a satire and as a parody.  The movie certainly has some extremely funny moments (watch the defendant who tries to eat the evidence in his trial) but any number of shocking, maddening and depressing moments as well. After you watch it you can decide for yourself what you think it is.

Here in Colorado, our state bar has declared October to be professionalism month.  Watching And Justice for All brings to mind the inspiring language from the Preamble to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct:

“A lawyer, as a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an   officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.”

But as inspiring as those words are, you also can’t help also thinking of Arthur’s sad discussion with his grandfather:

Grandfather: Are you a good lawyer? Honest?
Arthur: Being honest doesn’t have much to do with being a lawyer.
Grandfather: If you’re not honest, you’ve got nothing.

After you watch And Justice for All, see if you agree with how Arthur resolves his  dilemma about honesty and the quality of justice. I’d be interested in your answer.

One thought on “NITA Movie Review: “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!”
  • I saw “And Justice for All” when I was a baby lawyer doing misdemeanors in the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. I thought the movie went over the top at the end, but the early scene where Pacino spends a morning of routine appearances in a chaotic criminal court (including the part where one defendant tries to eat his parking tickets) struck me as one of the best depictions I’d ever seen of life in the trenches of criminal defense.

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