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NITA Movie Review: Greedy Cousins, A Fight for Autonomy, and a Really Big Rabbit

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

Sometimes we forget all the areas where trial lawyers work. In Denver, where I am, our stand-alone Probate Court handle cases as varied as mental health proceedings and estate matters. This month we’ll focus on films that fall within that court’s purview. I’ve deliberately chosen to leave out movies that I’ve written about before, like Miracle on 34th Street (where Santa Claus goes on trial for “lunacy”) as well as movies featuring really crazy people (like Psycho.) Instead, I’ve picked a black comedy about an inheritance battle, a drama about a fight over competency, and a wonderful movie about a man whose best friend is a six-foot three-and-a-half inch tall invisible rabbit.

The Wrong Box (1966, Columbia Pictures) is a British comedy that centers on the attempts of two scallywags to collect the proceeds of a tontine. A tontine was a sort of investment scheme used in the past. The members of a tontine placed a certain sum of money in an account, with the last surviving member inheriting the entire amount, plus years of interest, far off in the future (hopefully.) The winner’s relatives, of course, stood to profit thereafter. The potential for mischief should be obvious.

In the movie, the last two potential survivors who could inherit the tontine are Masterman Finsbury (played by a true giant of British acting, Sir Ralph Richardson) and his brother Joseph (played by the almost-as great Sir John Mills.) Joseph has two scheming nephews (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) who want to eliminate Masterman so that Joseph gets the proceeds of the tontine, followed (in short order) by the two nephews. Masterman’s only heir is his somewhat dim grandson, Michael (played by Michael Kane.) To describe the plot of this film would take more pages than these reviews are supposed to cover, but it involves (among other things) several murder plots, a train wreck, a misidentified corpse, a corpse stashed in a barrel, a corpse stashed in a piano, the mis-delivery of coffins — and a love story between Michael and Joseph’s prim and proper, but Victorian-ly repressed niece, (Nannette Newman.)

I’ve always found The Wrong Box hilarious and I think you will, too. It shows, in a farcical way, the ends to which people will go to secure what they believe to be their rightful inheritance. Courts and lawyers handling estate matters with real-life fights like this all the time.

Next, I present Nuts (1987, Warner Brothers), starring Barbara Streisand as Claudia Draper, a call girl who kills a client, according to her, in self-defense. Because of her erratic behavior, Claudia is confined at Bellevue, where she is examined by a psychiatrist, Dr. Morrison (Eli Wallach), who believes Claudia is incompetent to stand trial. Her parents (Karl Malden, Maureen Stapleton), fearful of a scandal, support this finding, because it would allow their daughter to be tucked away quietly in a mental institution. The parents hire a lawyer for their daughter, but the lawyer is in league with the parents and the psychiatrist. But at a competency hearing, Claudia strikes a blow for herself (literally) and the judge appoints a public defender, Aaron Levinsky (Richard Dreyfuss) to represent her. Claudia insists that she has a right to decide her fate, and that whatever mental illness she may have doesn’t deprive her of that right. The courtroom scenes are jarring and the end result of Claudia’s fight is never sure.

Nuts has several aspects that make it worth watching for those of us in “the system.” For lawyers, there’s the issue of how you interact with a client who even her own counsel describes as “a real pain in the ass.” For judges, there’s the fine line between the right of a defendant to make their own decisions and whether someone is actually so mentally ill that they cannot make decisions for themselves. And, throughout the film, there’s the philosophical question of whether or when the law should require that someone be treated for mental illness if that person doesn’t want to be treated or doesn’t believe they should be[1]. These are important questions not just for the law, but for society as a whole.

And last, but definitely not least, we come to Harvey (1950, Universal) a wonderful comedy starring James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd, a kind and gentle man, whose best friend is a pooka – an Irish spirit, in Elwood’s case is a six-foot three-and-a-half inch tall[2] invisible rabbit named Harvey. Of course, no one else can see Harvey and because Elwood likes to take more than a few drinks, spending much of his time at Charlie’s, Elwood’s (and Harvey’s) favorite local bar. His strait-laced relatives are sure that Elwood is both an alcoholic and certifiably crazy. Elwood is also perceived as an embarrassment to his family, who are convinced that he affects their social position and even the ability of his niece to marry well. An attempt is made to have Dowd committed, even enlisting the help of the local judge, but the attempt goes awry, as these things do in Hollywood. The head of the sanatorium proposes treatment with a secret formula that will keep Elwood from ever seeing Harvey again. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but rest assured that Elwood does not end up as “just a normal human being.”

Harvey is simply a warm, sympathetic portrait of a man who is either harmless eccentric or someone who’s mentally ill – or both. Stewart was nominated for Best Actor and Josephine Hull, who played Elwood’s frazzled sister Veta, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress Oscar[3]. The movie shows up a lot on TV and is one you shouldn’t miss. It’s also suitable for watching by and with kids, which neither The Wrong Box nor Nuts is.

Kudos to those who labor in the probate, estate and mental health fields!

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[1] Many judges have been faced with the issue of involuntary medication of persons receiving treatment in state facilities. Colorado’s statute can be found at C.R.S 1973, Section 26-65-118.
[1] The script always refers to Harvey as being 6’3-1/2” tall, but Stewart, who was 6’4” played it as if Harvey were 6’8” tall, so Stewart was always looking up to talk to Harvey.
[1] Ms. Hull appeared in another movie about slightly doty old folks in 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace.

NITA Movie Review: NO, No….I Hate Lawyers. I Only Work for Them.

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

Erin Brockovich was released in 2000 by Universal Pictures. Julia Roberts won a Best Actress Oscar for portraying the title character, a real-life, self-trained legal assistant who played a huge role in a landmark environmental case. It’s a movie that should remind all of us how much we need hard-working dedicated people to support what we do as trial lawyers and judges – and how sometimes what we need is for those folks to kick our keisters.

We first meet Erin as a plaintiff, suing a doctor with whom she was involved in a traffic accident. In spite of having a good case, her angry behavior in the courtroom leads to a loss; her lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney) intends to wash his hands of her. But then Erin appears in Ed’s office, tells him she has three kids and is out of work and that she has to hire her, since he lost her case. Somewhat surprisingly, Ed does exactly that, even though Erin has no legal background or experience.

Erin is assigned a case involving a couple who’s negotiating the sale of their home to Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). As she researches the file, Erin comes upon evidence that the property is contaminated with a carcinogenic chemical. Eventually, it comes to light that much of an entire town has been affected, along with hundreds of people. A class action suit is filed. Ed eventually decides that arbitration could produce a more rapid result for his clients, but such a tactic would require the agreement of most of the plaintiffs. After much more hard work by Erin, who wins the trust of the townspeople (and who also has to prod Ed to do what a lawyer should do), the arbitration is agreed to. Erin keeps digging and investigating and dramatic proof of knowledge of the scope of the problem by PG&E’s management is uncovered, leading to a court-ordered payment of $333 million dollar to the plaintiffs.

Erin Brockovich was a popular and successful film. In addition to Roberts’ Oscar win, the movie was nominated for Best Picture, Finney was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, there was a nomination for Best Screenplay, and director Steven Soderbergh was nominated for Best Director, an award he lost to himself, since he also directed Traffic that year. The real Erin Brockovich has a cameo in the movie — as a waitress named Julia.

Bill Demoulin was my mentor and then my partner. On the day I started with the firm, he made a point of telling me: “Never forget that a lawyer is only as good as his staff.” Being successful in court certainly requires skill and dedication and hard work on our part. But we should never forget that all that skill and dedication and hard work doesn’t mean anything if we don’t have people helping us with the same focus. The success we can deliver to our clients depends in large part on what happens long before we ever get to the courthouse. If you haven’t taken the time recently to thank your legal assistant, your secretary, your investigator, your receptionist, your file clerk, in fact, everybody in your office who makes you good at your job, do that tomorrow, if you don’t have time to do it today.

Now, you’re probably asking what happened to inspire me to write this review. Erin Brockovich is a movie about a focused person, dedicated to justice, who wants to see the right result happen and will do the hard work to make that happen. Maybe you guessed: Kelly Boe let us know she’s going to retire. As we all know, Kelly is an administrator without peer. She is both a team player and a leader. I have never seen her flustered, even when she had good reason to be. If something needs to get done, she gets it done. Her goal has always been that the Second Judicial District should be the model for every other district in the state and that everyone, from the oldest judge to the newest clerk, has the environment and the resources and the help they need to get their job done right. We will miss her immeasurably, but wish her all the best. And we will try not to envy her on that first morning when she wakes up and doesn’t have to come to work!

NITA Movie Review: There Is Absolutely No Place In A Courtroom For Pride

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

Having recently rotated out of a domestic relations division and back into a civil division, I thought that this month’s review ought to focus on a movie involving civil litigation – so naturally I picked A Civil Action (Buena Vista Pictures, 1998), another movie “based on a true story.” I’d forgotten some of what made the movie memorable, but after watching the whole film on YouTube, I remembered that the movie has much to recommend it, not the least how it shows the way that litigation can be stacked in favor of the party with the most resources – and how a lawyer’s “standing on principle” may not be the best resolution for the lawyer’s client.

Jon Travolta plays real-life lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, who takes on a toxic tort case for clients living in Woburn, Massachusetts, a town with high rates of cancer, illness and even death that the clients – and eventually Schlichtmann – are caused by pollution of the town’s water supply by tanneries owned by corporate giants Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace and Co. Schlichtmann, assisted by other lawyers, files a class action lawsuit, seeking a big dollar payout and an apology for his clients. But things go wrong, very wrong. The Defendants hire high-powered lawyers, especially Beatrice’s lawyer, Jerry Facher, played by Robert Duvall. It becomes obvious that Defendants’ lawyers have Schlichtmann and his cohorts seriously outgunned, both in their ability as lawyers and by the vastly superior monetary resources the Defendants can bring to bear. Schlichtmann and the other lawyers on the Plaintiffs’ side have to keep advancing costs to keep the case alive; the Plaintiffs’ lawyers mortgage their homes, cash out retirement accounts and borrow money, but it’s never enough. Schlichtmann and his clients get unfavorable rulings from the trial judge (John Lithgow) yet turn down a huge settlement offer. The Plaintiffs take the case to trial and the result isn’t what they either want or need. Schlichtmann ends up a broken man, in bankruptcy court.

A Civil Action is well-thought of. In the ABA’s 2008 list of Twenty Five Greatest Legal Movies, it’s ranked 22nd. In another ABA poll taken in 2015, it was voted one of the three best legal movies of the decade 1995 – 2004. Robert Duvall was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar; Marlon Brando turned down the part of Jerry Facher.

But the movie ultimately may make you uncomfortable. The justice is all on one side of the case; the financial muscle and resources are all on the other side. Schlichtmann goes into court and during the trial makes some fundamental errors in presentation and preparation. He wants to fight for principle and in doing so destroys himself and his fellow lawyers, while leaving his clients with little real relief. He focuses on a single, specific outcome and blindly pursues it without thinking through what will happen if that result is not achieved. In the end, he demonstrates the accuracy of something Facher says to a law school class, from which I took the title of this review: “Now the single greatest liability a lawyer can have is pride. Pride… Pride has lost more cases than lousy evidence, idiot witnesses and a hanging judge all put together. There is absolutely no place in a courtroom for pride.” I have told my students at DU Law School something similar for years.

Many of us have heard Mark Caldwell tell program participants that a lawyer must be the client’s voice. What goes on in a courtroom must always be about the litigants first and foremost. When lawyers – and judges – forget that and put their egos ahead of the just resolution of the case that needs deciding, the legal system fails us all.

NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system. NITA's Goals are to:
  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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