Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson yelling at each other over the objections of another attorney and the judge in “A Few Good Men” might make for a dramatic movie scene (and a load of great memes), but it bears little resemblance to what goes on in a real-life courtroom.
Although Great Falls courtroom officials may watch their professions on TV for entertainment, they definitely don’t watch for the realism.
Here’s what a judge, a prosecutor and a defense attorney had to say about how their jobs are portrayed in Hollywood.
On the bench
When it comes to TV judges, the small things can matter. Real judges don’t use gavels. They rarely hold people in contempt of court. They’re not all “hanging judges” who’re tough on crime no matter what.
But for Cascade County District Judge Greg Pinski, poor movie portrayals of judges have more to do with what you don’t see on screen.
First and foremost, Pinski said he dislikes seeing emotionless judges who seem unaffected by what goes on in their courtrooms.
“When you hear the impact that crimes have on a victim or on a family, it’s hard for me to imagine being a judge that you see on TV that’s impervious to those emotions,” he said. “I can’t do that.”
Second, Hollywood likes to show the dramatic trials but leaves out jury selection, and it neglects all the other things judges do as part of their jobs.
Besides criminal trials and hearings, Pinski also presides over treatment courts, youth in need of care cases, adoptions and civil matters such as divorces and child custody arrangements.
As much as he’d like to be withering and sarcastic sometimes, Pinski said that kind of behavior has no place on the bench.
“When it comes to TV judges, Judge Judy says what real judges think but can’t say,” Pinski said, laughing. “Judge Judy can make light of the absurdity judges see every day, but judges do have to maintain a decorum.”
Pinski said he admires aspects of some TV and movie judges, such as Henry X. Harper in “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Judge Harper has the unenviable task of determining whether or not a man claiming to be Santa Claus actually is.
“He was just an ordinary judge who’s elected that found himself in the middle of this extraordinary case, and he really grappled with this situation,” said Pinski.
As for poor judges, Pinski cited Judge H. H. Harrison from the movie “Used Cars.” Harrison famously keeps a model guillotine on the bench for all to see.
“That goes without saying that that’s a bad judge,” Pinski said.
Finally, Pinski shared a Hollywood judge he loves in spite of the movie’s inaccuracies: the stern and exasperated Judge Chamberlain Haller in “My Cousin Vinny.”
“What judge or lawyer can’t relate to Fred Gwynne’s character in My Cousin Vinny?” he said.
For the defense
Defense attorney Meghan Lulf Sutton has some definite feelings about Hollywood lawyers.
Specifically, Sutton expressed frustration with how defense attorneys—especially public defenders—are portrayed as “scumbags.”
“If I had a mason jar, I could’ve filled it with tears and emotion for what my clients were going through,” she said.
The function of defense attorneys, Sutton said, is to make sure their clients receive a fair trial and to safeguard their constitutional rights.
As a former public defender, she would know.
“I cringe when I hear the phrase ‘public pretender,’” Sutton said. “Most public defenders I know are the biggest advocates and biggest believers. They have a crazy hard job.”
Public defenders aren’t incompetent, just busy. They handle everything from DUIs to homicides and spend a lot of time at the jail seeing clients, all things TV and movies don’t show.
“I would not be the attorney I am today if I had not worked in the public defender’s office,” Sutton said. “I think that the people that matriculate from that office end up being the best defense attorneys that there are.”
Sutton worries about how Hollywood affects people’s perception of her job.
She’s even had clients make suggestions to her about how to handle their case based on things they’ve seen on TV.
“Your Google search does not equal my law degree. I have a coffee mug of it because it drives me insane,” she said. “You watch ‘Law and Order’ or you binge-watch ‘Better Call Saul’ or whatever, but you don’t have a law degree and all the discovery in the case, and you should just be quiet.”
Sutton does enjoy the more humorous takes on attorneys, such as “Better Call Saul.”
“It’s one of my favorite shows, and I love it,” she said, “but one episode that they did would get him disbarred.”
She expressed a special hatred for inaccurate and sensationalized procedural dramas such as “CSI” and “Law and Order,”
Unfortunately, said Sutton, the public expects a real-life trial to unfold like what they see on TV. That’s fine, except those unrealistic expectations extend to jurors.
When a jury expects every case to have DNA evidence, they may believe a case can’t be proven without it.
“There’s so many things,” she said. “Pretty much everything in those shows is inaccurate.”
For the prosecution
Like Sutton, Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki has an aversion to what he calls “the CSI effect.”
“The scientific evidence is never like they show on TV and movies,” he said. “Lots of times it isn’t there or can be inconclusive.”
Racki recalled one of the Batman movies where someone shot a gun into a wall, and Batman reconstructed bullet and got a fingerprint off of it.
“You’re never ever going to do that, but people expect that,” he said.
In addition, a public used to seeing an investigation go from beginning to end in 40 minutes can come to believe that’s how fast justice happens.
In reality, it can take months to investigate the crime, up to a year to get evidence analyzed and multiple years to get to a trial on major cases. In fact, prosecutors can’t even send all their evidence to the crime lab for analysis.
They’re limited to 10 items for homicide cases, so they have to pick and choose the most convincing pieces of evidence.
Ironically, both Racki and Sutton believe their professions are portrayed as “the bad guys.”
Racki said it’s more popular lately to believe a defendant has been wrongly accused than rightly so because people fear being falsely accused of a crime.
“(Prosecutors) are the ones out there advocating for crime victims and fighting for justice,” he said.
There are few surprises on either side during a trial, according to Racki.
“Most people are telling the truth the best they can,” he said. “Most people don’t go up there to lie, and it’s tough to prove if they are.”
Like on TV, though, there are some funny moments.
Racki’s had a defendant whose crime was caught on video. The man took the stand and claimed he acted in self-defense, pretending he couldn’t see himself in the video.
Movies and TV add a level of drama that Racki said most trials just don’t have: lawyers stand up and shout objections; judges bang gavels and call for order; someone calls a surprise witness; someone else is dramatically caught in a lie.
In real life, judges don’t put up with a lot of nonsense, and surprise witnesses violate the rules of discovery that ensure both sides have enough time to prepare their questions.
“From a prosecutor’s point of view, if a defense attorney has evidence that shows…their client is not guilty, they should just give it to me because I’ll dismiss their case,” Racki said. “I’m not interested in sending innocent people to jail. I’m interested in justice.”
Criminal justice reporter Traci Rosenbaum reports on law enforcement issues for the Tribune. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 406-791-1490.