Lots of memorable things can happen in a courtroom here in the real world, but Hollywood has a way of making things seem bigger and more dramatic (or hilarious) on whichever-sized-screen it chooses. When compiling this list of the 23 Must-Watch Courtroom Moments from TV and Movies, I noticed that each tended to hit very high highs and very low lows.
In other words, these selections may have you laughing hysterically one moment and throwing something at your computer screen the next. But that’s the way it goes when lives and freedom are in the balance. Let the arguments begin!
1. A Few Good Men
In A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise stars as Lt. Daniel Kaffee, who is tasked with the chore of defending Marines accused of murder. But his clients insist they were acting under direct orders, a fact made famously clear in the climactic courtroom showdown between Kaffee and Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Nathan R. Jessup. Kaffee wants the truth, but Jessup believes he “can’t handle the truth!” The scene is memorable for that one line as well as Nicholson’s brief but unforgettable appearance in the third act.
2. Law Abiding Citizen
WARNING: This clip is NSFW. This excellent revenge thriller follows frustrated family man Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler), who declares war on the men that killed his family as well as everyone involved in their plea bargain – including the main character played by Jamie Foxx. This particular scene in which Shelton chastises the judge for treating the law “like it’s an assembly line” is powerful stuff.
3. Boston Legal
Boston Legal is a show chock full of memorable courtroom moments, but this one stands out more than any other, and from the image alone, how could it not? You’ve got William Shatner dressed up like a minuteman firing a musket in court. Is there any more to say?
JAG detailed the cases of Harmon Rabb, a former Navy fighter pilot, and his fellow lawyers from the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s office. While the gang often respected one another, things could get quite heated when going head-to-head. In the following clip, Harm (David James Elliott) hits Mac (Catherine Bell) below the belt, using her history with addiction against her in court. Throw in a client overdosing by nicotine patch, and you’ve got a scene that’s hard to forget.
5. My Cousin Vinny (Stuttering John)
The Oscar-winning courtroom comedy My Cousin Vinny is memorable for a lot of scenes involving Vinny (Joe Pesci) and his girlfriend Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) and we’ve featured both of them here previously, but who can forget his innocent murder suspect cousin’s earlier counsel, John Gibbons, a stuttering attorney who can’t seem to get through his opening statement?
Austin Pendleton is the man behind that character, and he pulls it off with such authenticity that you start to feel sorry for the guy. Still, the very thought of someone in this profession having that affliction is comic gold.
6. Liar, Liar (Opening)
Jim Carrey is at his rubber-faced best as brilliant attorney Fletcher Reede, whose son wishes that for one day his dad would be unable to tell a lie. With Reede set to represent a duplicitous and vindictive adulterer, he’ll need all the luck he can get to make it through the case. In this particular clip, he’s first coming to terms with the fact that he can’t lie, and it’s hysterical from both vocal and physical comedy angles.
7. Liar, Liar (Closing)
Another one from Liar, Liar, this time Reede somehow manages to find the loophole he’s looking for to get his client half the marital estate rather than the paltry $2.4 million settlement her soon-to-be ex-husband is offering her. Again, it’s Carrey’s physicality that makes this and the other courtroom scenes so fun to watch. “Jim Carrey in a courtroom,” is a pitch that pretty much sells itself, and here you can see why.
8. My Cousin Vinny (Magic Grits)
Cousin Vinny isn’t the most confidence-inspiring protagonist, what with his testy exchanges with an old-fashioned judge and his “unprofessional” leather courtroom garb. But when circumstances force Vinny into an even more ridiculous suit and the prosecution continues to get in its licks against his murder suspect cousin, hope seems fading.
Then there is this wonderful scene where Vinny is able to poke a hole in one witness’s story using none other than old-fashioned Southern Grits to do the trick. One of many fun scenes in a surprisingly realistic courtroom comedy!
9. The Good Wife (The Fifth Amendment)
This scene is a bit outrageous in the sense that the judge is so blatant with his determination to violate the witness’s right to the Fifth Amendment. Most judges have enough law knowledge to know that’s a big no-no. Nevertheless, it makes for good TV, and it gives Alicia (Julianna Margulies) a chance to flex her muscles. Plus, who doesn’t like it when a bully gets his comeuppance?
10. The Good Wife (Courtroom Shooting)
Not sure what the Internet etiquette is on divulging major spoilers, especially since we live in a binge watching culture, where you may not get around to watching a show for years after its premiere. Therefore, we will refrain from giving the spoilers. We’ll only say that a courtroom scene turns tragic, shocking, and deadly, when a major, much loved character is gunned down in court. If you’re fine with spoilers, check out the episode recap here.
Unfortunately, we were unable to procure video of the actual scene for purposes of this article, but we have included a preview of the episode.
11. To Kill a Mockingbird
The story is tragic, even infuriating (and has recently made the news once again). And even though outcomes are not always what we want them to be, sometimes it’s the fact that we try that makes all the difference. That’s the overwhelmingly moving message to the final scene of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Atticus Finch has just lost his case defending an innocent black man against accusations of rape. But, the risks that he took to make that case wins the respect of everyone left in the courtroom for the losing side. And that final line still gives us shivers.
12. Franklin and Bash
Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and Jared Franklin (Breckin Meyer) have unconventional ways of proving their points in court, and this first courtroom scene from the very first episode establishes that fact firmly. While trying to teach the jury about distractions, the duo have their witness, a model, begin disrobing.
First, there is an objection. Then, the judge orders her to stop it. Then Franklin tells her to ignore the judge getting both witness and attorney kicked out of the courtroom. That’s when Bash brings it home.
Seinfeld always did a wonderful job of satirizing popular culture, and when the O.J. Simpson Murder Trial came, the show’s writers didn’t waste any time. In this clip, Jerry Seinfeld (the character) is trying to withhold his testimony from expert attorney Jackie Chiles.
He’s developed a crush on Sue-Ellen Mischke, the heir to the Oh Henry candy bar fortune, who caused Kramer to wreck George’s car when she was walking down the street wearing a bra as her only top. (Naturally, Kramer sues.)
Eventually, Chiles, Kramer’s attorney, gets Seinfeld to cave. But Kramer’s caddy has a suggestion that puts key evidence in the hands of the defendant and ruins the case.
14. A Time to Kill
Switching gears to the more somber, Matthew McConaughey’s closing argument in defense of a man, who killed his 10-year-old daughter’s rapists, is one of the most powerful courtroom speeches we’ve ever heard in a film or TV show.
A warning if you’re going to watch the video that accompanies this link: there are some graphic descriptions of the crime, which set the defendant off. But it creates such tension and emotion, that every word of it is necessary for the character’s last line to have the impact that it does.
15. The Verdict
Paul Newman’s Oscar-nominated performance as downtrodden attorney Frank Galvin is unquestionably one of the best of his career. Seeing an opportunity to salvage his career, Frank decides to forgo settlement on a major medical malpractice suit and take it to trial. Up against insurmountable odds and his own demons, he somehow finds it in himself to dig deep and find redemption.
His closing argument is one of the most powerful you’ll hear, especially with the jury-empowering line, “Today, you are the law.”
16. …And Justice for All
It’s hard to imagine that this would ever happen in a real court of law, but in the context of the film, it’s believable and unforgettable stuff. Al Pacino is Arthur Kirkland, a brilliant but spirited defense attorney who agrees to defend a judge and adversary accused of rape and assault. It’s not exactly a willing thing.
The judge, played by John Forsythe, has threatened to have him disbarred if he doesn’t say yes. So he goes along with it until this epic profanity-laced explosion in court sets the record straight.
17. 12 Angry Men
No article on memorable courtroom moments would be incomplete without including at least one scene from the film classic 12 Angry Men.
In this powerful clip, one of the jurors clinging to his prejudices instead of evidence tries to convince the other men that the suspect accused of murder is guilty. As his attempts get more and more desperate, it’s inspiring to see each of the men turn their backs on him. While this scene is more of a memorable courthouse moment, it holds direct repercussions for the film’s conclusion.
18. Perry Mason (Indict the Dog)
Perry Mason, the brilliant defense attorney of literature, TV, and film, was always known for unorthodox maneuvers in court, and the clip you’re about to see is no exception. Here he’s defending a man whose dog was implicated in a dog bite attack. The complainant attests that the defendant didn’t take reasonable steps for preventing the attack. Mason contends that “perhaps, the proper criminal procedure would have been the indictment of the dog.”
He then states some old world precedent to back it up. Of course, Mason always has tricks up his sleeve with stuff like this, and by the end of the episode, he’s gotten his client cleared and he even uses the dog to “cross-examine” a killer.
19. Kramer vs. Kramer
Kramer vs. Kramer dealt with an ugly divorce and child custody case as well as a father’s rights to his child when it comes to determining who should have custody. At the time, there was a common belief that custodial rights automatically went to the mother. The problem in this case was that Dad (Dustin Hoffman) was a much better parent.
This memorable speech hits all the right emotional buttons, and if you didn’t already feel like Mr. Kramer deserved to win his case, you will after it.
20. Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Season 1, Episode 3
And now for something completely different! The comedic stylings of Monty Python fit in perfectly in a courtroom setting. With a frantic and witty pace, the Monty Python crew lampoons every aspect of the trial process culminating in John Cleese putting a dead body in a coffin on the witness stand.
This particular episode came from Season One, Episode Three. Decades have passed, and it’s still a classic.
Woody Allen has taken a drier approach to comedy in recent years, but Bananas is the writer-director-comedian at his madcap best. The courtroom montage alone is side-splittingly funny — from its depiction of J. Edgar Hoover to the “gag order” placed on suspected enemy of the state Fielding Mellish (Allen), there are jokes layered on top of other jokes, physical and mental comedy side-by-side every step of the way.
It’s like a young, fresh Three Stooges skit transplanted to the 1970s. And speaking of the Stooges …
22. Three Stooges (Disorder in the Court)
One of the earliest Three Stooges shorts is still one of their funniest and most famous. “Disorder in the Court” is technically a “Curly,” but the guy who steals the show is everyone’s favorite wild-haired stradivarius player, Larry Fine. Picking up the action at the 13:18 mark, we see Larry sneak up on Moe, whose face is now sporting a piece of gum Curly threw at it.
Larry has good intentions, but he would certainly be in contempt of court if this was any other courtroom of film and TV.
23. Legally Blonde
Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) never saw herself as an attorney. She figured that she would just marry one, until her law school boyfriend dumps her. Intent on getting him back, she follows him back to school only to find that she’s quite the legal expert herself.
In the clip, Elle finds herself defending an innocent friend from a murder charge. Her solution is unusual, to say the least — and it completely fits her character.
Which of these memorable courtroom scenes did you think was the best, and which ones deserved to be here that we here at The Reeves Law Group may have missed? Add your thoughts in our comments section below!