BLUFF CITY ERRORS OF LAW
I am a lawyer who does not play one on TV. But I became a lawyer because when I was a boy I was inspired by TV lawyers.
The first lawyer I ever met was Perry Mason. He came into my home when I was six years old, appearing in black and white on the TV screen in my family’s living room. Perry was a phenomenal criminal defense lawyer who had two remarkable qualities. First, he always represented innocent clients. Second, he always won. And Perry didn’t just win. He won big.
Perry did not believe in the weenie reasonable doubt defense. Instead, in a murder trial he would prove that his client was innocent by proving who the real killer was! And incredibly, the real killer would always be in the courtroom attending the trial! At some dramatic point in the trial, Perry would be wearing Lt. Tragg down on the witness stand, when the real killer would suddenly jump up from his seat in the gallery and scream, “Stop it, Mr. Mason! Your client did not murder the victim! I did!”
It was incredibly impressive.
Over the years I met many other great TV lawyers including Hamilton Burger (the ill-fated prosecutor whom Perry Mason beat every week), Arnie Becker of “LA Law”, Lionel Hutz on “The Simpsons”, Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer on “Saturday Night Live”, and Ben Matlock, a Seersucker-clad Atlanta lawyer who bore a remarkable resemblance to Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, North Carolina.
My all-time favorite TV lawyer was the British Barrister Horace Rumpole of “Rumpole of the Bailey”. Married to “She who must be obeyed”, Hilda Rumpole, Horace delivered memorable lines such as, “It is not true that crime does not pay. Crime in fact does pay, but only in retainers that clients must refresh on a regular basis.”
Since I have always enjoyed watching non-real lawyers on TV, I tuned in last Monday night for the premiere of “Bluff City Law”, the latest TV lawyer show. I was particularly interested in “Bluff City Law” since it is set in my hometown, Memphis.
Well, as it turned out, at least in its first episode, “Bluff City Law” was a mistrial.
I do not expect TV law shows to be realistic. Nothing could be more boring than a realistic show about the work of lawyers. Can you imagine an episode of Perry Mason featuring Perry spending hours taking the deposition of a witness while Della Street and Paul Drake took notes, and the real killer wasn’t even present in the conference room?
But I do expect TV lawyer shows to bear at least some resemblance to reality, and certainly not depict the heroes of the show to be rewarded for unprofessional conduct. On that basis, the first episode of “Bluff City Law” was guilty of malpractice.
The stars of “Bluff City Law” are a father-daughter legal team played by Jimmy Smits (formerly of LA Law) and Caitlin McGee. For years the daughter has represented the forces of evil (corporations), while her father has been on the side of goodness, poor folks whom the corporations have tried to kill. But after the death of her mother, the daughter returns to her father’s firm to help him pursue justice.
They then team up as counsel in a jury trial on behalf of a dying man who has contracted cancer thanks to the evil work of a chemical company.
The judge presiding over the trial is as evil as the chemical company. She keeps issuing rulings from the bench designed to keep the the dying man and his father-daughter legal team from winning the case. Finally the exasperated daughter screams in front of the jury that the Judge has been bribed by the evil chemical company. The evil judge holds the daughter in contempt, but then lets the trial for forward with no other consequences to the young female lawyer.
Later in the trial, the evil judge excludes all the expert witnesses the father-daughter legal team tries to call against the evil corporation to prove their case. Nevertheless, the last such excluded expert is allowed to take the stand and blurt out an apology for the evil corporation giving the man cancer. The evil judge then sustains the evil defense lawyers’ objection to the testimony, meaning the father-daughter legal team has no case to submit to the jury. But the evil judge does submit the case to the jury which , of course, is comprised of honest good people who return a verdict of tens of millions of dollars to the father-daughter legal team and their dying client.
There are just a couple of problems here. First, in the boring real world, if a lawyer accused the judge of being paid off by the other side, two things would happen. First a mistrial would be declared. Second, the lawyer who accused the judge of being bribed would be most likely be sanctioned by being ordered to pay the defense and court costs of the trial.
Second, in the boring real world, the case presented by the father-daughter legal team would never have gone to the jury. In the absence of expert testimony that the dying man’s cancer was caused by the evil chemical company, the case would have been dismissed by the evil judge.
But a mistrial, sanctions against honest lawyers, and a dismissal of the case would not lead to a verdict of high ratings by the real jury in “Bluff City Law, “ the TV viewers.
“Bluff City Law” may turn out to be a big hit. But this old real lawyer is going to recuse himself from watching future episodes. Instead, I am going to watch re-runs of Perry Mason exposing the real killers!