In fictitious literary and cinematic works, American judges are often portrayed as unethical, corrupt, eccentric, or simply brutal; however, the overwhelming majority of American judges are doing their difficult jobs fairly well. In his Article, Kooks, Crooks, Brutes or Rhadamanthine Opacities: Some Thoughts on the Depiction of Judges in Popular Fiction, U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor takes issue with the cynical light cast on American judges and explains why such a view exists.
At the outset of his Article, Judge Ponsor readily admits that there are issues of incompetence and corruption within the judicial branch of the government, but explains that the judicial branch, as a whole, is the most respected and approved branch of government. Judge Ponsor identifies several works of impressive contemporary literature that highlight the negative aspects of the judiciary. Specifically, Judge Ponsor highlights the negative depictions of judges in novels, such as A Time to Kill and To Kill a Mockingbird, and explains that, while these depictions of judges may be entertaining, they are unflattering, incorrect, and problematic.
From Judge Ponsor’s first-hand perspective, there are several reasons why the number of real-life judges who fall into negative categories is far less than those who do so in popular fiction. One possible reason is that there is an irresistible temptation to negatively characterize a judge because of their authoritarian status. Additionally, it is beneficial to fictitious story lines to characterize a judge as immoral or terrifying for plot structure, even though such traits are rare among judges in real life. According to Judge Ponsor, judges are typically expressionless in the courtroom, but incorporating a “kooky fictional judge” in a work of fiction serves as a key device to break up the monotony of a potentially tedious melodrama.
Judge Ponsor explains that writers often face the problem of depicting judges in fiction while also describing the legal system generally. This issue arises because good stories need to be reasonably simple and credibly vivid, but real-life court cases tend to be neither. Judge Ponsor drives the plot of his own fiction novel, The Hanging Judge, which involves a death penalty case, by developing the relationship between the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney from one of mutual hostility into one of grudging respect. There are only two attorneys involved in Judge Ponsor’s novel, but he notes that, in most real-life death penalty cases, there a many attorneys on each side. Judge Ponsor explains that it would be a technical nightmare to create a readable fictional narrative about such a case while developing relationships between multiple attorneys on each side; thus, though death penalty defendants in federal court are statutorily entitled to at least two attorneys, his novel includes just one attorney on each side. When writing a readable novel, Judge Ponsor states, reality sometimes has to give way to the pressures of narrative. Therefore, Judge Ponsor believes, because the justice system is heavily intricate and dull, it would be difficult for an outside reader to be fascinated by it and a fiction writer can instead captivate a reader by including a “crackpot judge” in the book.
Finally, Judge Ponsor observes that legal concepts such as equal protection and due process are derived from the same parts of human imagination that produce the greatest works of art. Thus, Judge Ponsor believes it may not be so bad that popular fiction reminds us that our judges are actually real and vulnerable, since they are humans after all.
Judge Ponsor’s Article will appear in Volume 51, Issue 2 of the New England Law Review .
Contributing Editor: Daniel Williams