In Law and Popular Culture

And we move along to the third and final part of the mini-series about favorite movie scenes about law. Any connection between these last two movie scenes is tenuous, but it could be this: In both scenes there is a sense of astonishment. In these scenes, the main characters are dumbfounded either by the law or by the nature of mankind. But in any case, they deal with vastly different topics within international law, and their messages are delivered in starkly different ways. And I had to throw this little nugget from The West Wing in here somewhere.

Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)

I guess this scene from Judgement at Nuremberg (is not so much a scene, but a monologue. The powerful monologue of the judge at a post-World War II international criminal tribunal, played by Spencer Tracy, highlights not only the purpose of international criminal law. This speech, and the entire movie shows how lawyers can be coopted in a brutal regime, as well as other ordinary citizens. Behind this movie is the true story of the Altstötter trials highlighting the equal culpability of lawyers in the commission of international crimes. That culpability was invoked for instance in the case of John Yoo and other lawyers who provided legal cover in the War on Terror.

“The real complaining party at the bar in this courtroom is civilization. But the Tribunal does say that the men in the dock are responsible for their actions, men who sat in black robes in judgment on other men, men who took part in the enactment of laws and decrees, the purpose of which was the extermination of humans beings, men who in executive positions actively participated in the enforcement of these laws — illegal even under German law. The principle of criminal law in every civilized society has this in common: Any person who sways another to commit murder, any person who furnishes the lethal weapon for the purpose of the crime, any person who is an accessory to the crime — is guilty.”

And I consider this part especially relevant for today’s global mood:

”This trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary and even able and extraordinary men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination.” 

So we are reminded that good people can do evil things. And if lawyers are swayed as well, they become the ultimate enablers, the ultimate covers for structural grave injustices.

The West Wing (1999-2006)

On lighter note: this scene from the The West Wing, and the case of Abdul Shareef I wrote about earlier. President Bartlet cannot get beyond the fact that a foreign Minister of Defense cannot be arrested because of the immunity he enjoys under international law. Enjoy:

Bartlet: This is ridiculous. He’s coming here. He’s coming here! Why the hell can’t we arrest him when he steps off the plane?

Lawyer: It’s a breach of diplomatic immunity. 

David: It’s our own Diplomatic Relations Act– 22 U.S.C. 254.

Lawyer: No foreign government…

General: He doesn’t need the citation…

Fitzwallace: At what point do you forfeit diplomatic status?

Bartlet: Fitz makes a reasonable point. Doesn’t it pretty much go without saying that I revoked it after he tried to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge?

Lawyer: It doesn’t go without saying Mr. President. Now, immunity can be set aside. It’s possible, but it means making our case to the Sultan.

Leo: We can’t do that.

David: We have no extradition treaty with Qumar.

Bartlet: Why the hell do we need…? He’s coming here on his own. He’s delivering himself on a Lear jet.

David: It still means setting aside diplomatic immunity, which stills means a conversation with the Sultan.

Leo: We can’t talk to the Sultan David, Shareef is a member of the royal family. The Sultan’s his brother. We want to lock him up. I don’t think he’s going to warm to it. Plus we’re never going to see Shareef again.

Lawyer: There are things we could explore working under treaties we signed with Great Britain when Qumar was a protectorate. Now, Qumar has historically rejected this interpretation of international law…

Leo: That’s fine. It doesn’t matter what they historically rejected. Shareef is coming here. Have an answer for us by tomorrow.

Bartlet: Fellas, this guy is going to stand trial in a US court and if we have to stick heroin on his plane to get him there, that’s what we’re going to do.

The wonderful words of Aaron Sorkin illustrate how lawyers can throw a wrench in the decision-making process of the executive branch. And of course, the astonishment at how the law works in reality, or how the law is often disconnected from reality for the purpose of regulating that same reality. I guess that that is the real emerging theme of this blog and this fascination with the intersection of law with popular culture. Because the latter provides a mirror as to how the former is perceived.

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