Legal Light From 'The Simpsons'
by Larry M. Wertheim
Reprinted from the Feb. 2003 edition of the Bench & Bar of Minnesota.
Author’s note: While lawyers generally seek the respect of their community and society at large, many lawyers merely seek to elicit the respect of their own children. This article has been written in an effort to appease the latter.
Despite its earlier reputation for vulgarity, "The Simpsons" has come to be widely hailed for its insightful commentary on American culture. An academic treatise on philosophy has even been written using the show as source material.1 Yet, little attention has been paid to the incisive commentary on the law found in "The Simpsons." This article examines "The Simpsons" for the light it sheds on the practice of law.
Over the course of the years, both criminal and civil litigation has figured in the plots of various episodes of "The Simpsons." In most cases, the Simpsons are represented by Lionel Hutz, a (literally) ambulance-chasing lawyer whose voice was provided by the late Phil Hartman. Lionel Hutz has represented the Simpsons in connection with a fraudulent injury claim by Bart Simpson ("Bart Gets Hit By a Car," based on Billy Wilder’s "The Fortune Cookie"); a defense of Bart on a murder charge ("Bart the Murderer"); a sexual harassment claim of Marge Simpson ("Marge Gets a Job"); a consumer misrepresentation claim on behalf of Homer Simpson ("New Kid on the Block"); a defense of Marge on a shoplifting charge ("Marge in Chains"); a defense of Homer on the Devil’s contract claim for Homer’s soul ("Treehouse of Horror IV," modeled on "Faust"); a claim by Homer and Marge to regain custody of Bart ("Burn’s Heir"); a claim by Bart for tainted food ("Round Springfield"); and a claim on behalf of Bart and Lisa’s friend for copyright infringement ("The Day the Violence Died")2. Hutz is often opposed by an older, nasal, pasty-faced lawyer (modeled on Joe McCarthy’s Roy Cohn) who is retained by Mr. Burns and other corporate clients and who also acts as a prosecutor.
Lionel Hutz, who claims to have "attended Harvard, Yale, MIT, Oxford, the Sorbonne, the Louvre," generally ends up on the losing end of this litigation. More important, however, is what he indicates about contemporary legal practices. Since the 1977 Supreme Court decision legalizing lawyer advertising,3 the commercialization of legal practices has continued apace. Besides being sleazy in the traditional sense, Hutz represents the ultimate "consumerization" of law. He offices under the name "I Can’t Believe It’s a Law Firm!" in the Springfield Shopping Mall, an indication that legal services are really no different from groceries. (He also takes in shoe repair and his yellow pages ad reads: "Cases won in 30 minutes or your pizza’s free.") Similarly, his marketing efforts are akin to those of the shopping mall. In seeking Bart’s personal injury case, he tells Homer, "You’ll be getting more than just a lawyer, Mr. Simpson. You’ll also be getting this exquisite faux pearl necklace, a $99 value, as our gift to you."
Given such commercialization of the legal profession, it is not surprising that the idea of self-enforcing ethical rules is likely to be ignored. For example, Rule 7.1(b) of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits a lawyer from making communications that are "likely to create an unjustified expectation about results the lawyer can achieve." Lionel Hutz shows how such prophylactic devices are easily undermined in the real world, as he tells his prospective client: "Mr. Simpson, the State Bar forbids me from promising you a big cash settlement. But, just between you and me, I promise you a big cash settlement." Hutz engages in similar hyperbole after Homer is ejected from an "all you can eat" restaurant before he is satiated:
Homer: All you can eat —hah!
Hutz: Mr. Simpson, this is the most blatant case of fraudulent advertising since my suit against the film, "The Never-Ending Story."
Homer: Do you think I have a case?
Hutz: Now, Homer, I don’t use the term "hero" very often. But you are the greatest hero in American history.
While the exchange is exaggerated, it exposes the real problem of applying guild-like ethics to a consumer culture. Although both practiced law in a town called Springfield, the modern-day Hutz is a far cry from "Honest" Abe Lincoln.
"The Simpsons" also highlights our culture’s belief, based upon our TV lawyers, that the practice of law is really not all that complicated and that anyone could manage to maneuver the law. During one episode in which Homer seeks Hutz’s representation, Hutz reassures his client by telling him, "Mr. Simpson, don’t you worry, I watched ‘Matlock’ in a bar last night. The sound wasn’t on, but I think I got the gist of it." In an example of life imitating art, The New York Times has since reported that the most sought-after source of legal advice on the Internet is a 15-year-old boy who learned all the law he needed to know by watching television.4
Paradoxically, the show also accurately captures how exceedingly difficult it can be for laypersons (or novice lawyers) to conduct themselves before an unsympathetic judge:
Hutz: I move for a bad court thingy.
Judge Snyder [modeled on Robert Bork]: You mean a mistrial.
Hutz: Right!! That’s why you’re the judge and I’m the law-talking guy.
Judge: You mean the lawyer?
Similarly, "The Simpsons" effortlessly demolishes the popular myth of the ease of cross-examination, as Hutz attempts to undermine the Devil’s testimony regarding the enforceability of Homer’s contract to sell his soul for a donut:
Devil Flanders: I simply ask for what is mine.
Hutz: That was a right-pretty speech, sir. But I ask you, what is a contract? Webster’s defines it as "an agreement under the law which is unbreakable." What is unbreakable? Excuse me, I must use the restroom.
Finally, the show highlights the popular fear that in the legal process one’s future may be in the hands of lawyers like Hutz. There is this exchange during the course of his consultation with Marge on her shoplifting charge:
Hutz: Now don’t you worry Mrs. Simpson,
Marge: Is that bad?
Hutz: Well, he’s had it in for me ever since I kinda ran over his dog.
Marge: You did?
Hutz: Well, replace the word "kinda" with the word "repeatedly," and the word "dog" with "son."
In another episode, Hutz boasts, "I’ve argued in front of every judge in this state. Often as a lawyer." Eventually, Marge is forced to acknowledge, "We should really stop hiring him."
Hyper-Irony and the Law
One of the more profound insights into "The Simpsons" and its popularity is that, unlike most television, the show does not promote any specific moral agenda, such as "family values," individualism, or communitarianism. In fact, "The Simpsons" does not promote anything. "Its humor works by putting forward positions only in order to undercut them." Moreover, because this undercutting, labeled "Hyper-Irony," runs so deep, the show is not merely cynical because it undercuts cynicism itself. As a result, there is "no stable ground upon which the viewer can rest."5 Some of the show’s observations on the law bear this out.
In "Homer the Vigilante," after an outbreak of burglaries, Homer organizes a group of vigilantes, including Jimbo Jones, a teenage delinquent still in elementary school. When Homer is unable to apprehend the burglar, Jimbo angrily confronts Homer:
Jimbo Jones: You let me down, man. Now I don’t believe in nothing no more. I’m going to law school.
Homer: Noooo! [in a wail of Biblical proportions).
On its face, the humor comes from the popular conception of lawyers as devoid of morality. Even a person of Homer’s limited moral compass can bewail the descent of [even] Jimbo to such degradation. And yet, from the perspective of the law-abiding, Jimbo’s defection and Homer’s regret constitute the triumph of the law over the lawless (thus, adding to the humor). This dual perspective recalls Shakespeare’s "First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers."6 Popularly, this quote is taken as the ultimate indictment of lawyers.7 Yet, the better reading of Shakespeare is that since the statement is made by a vicious rebel (not unlike Jimbo), it should be read as a compliment to lawyers.8
Similarly, in "Marge in Chains," the following exchange occurs:
Bart: Mr. Hutz, when I grow up I want to be a lawyer just like you.
Hutz: Good for you son. If there is one thing America needs, it’s more lawyers.
[Hutz chillingly imagines a world without lawyers—a scene of people of all nationalities (including Elvis) holding hands and dancing around a circle under a rainbow.]
Here, the initial irony in Hutz’s statement is undercut by the fatuity of a utopian world without lawyers.
In another example, from "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie," Marge and Homer are concerned about Bart’s poor behavior. Marge had earlier argued that Homer’s permissiveness with Bart was naive. Later, they discuss Bart’s future:
Marge: Do you want your son to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or a sleazy male stripper?
Homer: Can’t he be both, like the late Earl Warren?
Marge: Earl Warren wasn’t a stripper!
Homer: Now, who’s being naive?
On the face of it, the humor arises from Homer’s absurd assertion about another vocation of a deceased Chief Justice. Yet, the reference to Earl Warren and naiveté is not happenstance. Chief Justice Earl Warren, the most visible emblem of the revolution in American law in the 1960s, is also intimately associated with the Warren Commission, the official investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy, which concluded that Oswald was the sole assassin. That finding was subject to tremendous criticism and doubt and eventually came to be seen as the first, great government cover-up, thereafter followed by The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and others. Therefore, since at one time it was thought absurd to suggest that America was not winning the war in Vietnam, that the Nixon Administration was engaging in petty burglaries, or that Ollie North would bring to Iran a cake with a file in it, now it is naive to reject out of hand Homer’s claim about Chief Justice Warren.9 Yet, the process of putting forward assertions in order to undercut them operates one more time. For it is absurd (and humorous) to refuse to reject every rumor or conspiracy theory in order to avoid being thought naive. By vowing that we "won’t be fooled again," we just fool ourselves again. Earl Warren was not a male stripper, Paul Wellstone’s plane was not shot down by Republicans, and we should not reject common sense out of the fear of being labeled naive.
"The Simpsons" holds up a mirror to us, including our legal system. While there are not many Lionel Hutzes practicing, there is at least some of Lionel Hutz in too many lawyers. Moreover, with its ability both to attack targets like legal consumerism and incompetence and also to engage in Hyper-Irony, "The Simpsons" requires constant reexamination of all verities, including legal ones.
Larry M. Wertheim is a lawyer with Kennedy & Graven, Chtd., in Minneapolis. He expresses his appreciation to Joel and Ira for their consultations.
If you’re the odd sort who likes to read footnotes, find them at www.denbar.org.docket.
1. William Irwin, Mark T. Conrad, and Aeon J. Skobie, ed., "The Simpsons" and Philosophy: The D'oh! Of Homer (2001).
2. Ray Richmond and Antonia Coffman, ed., "The Simpsons": A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family (1997) at 44, 65, 99, 100, 115, 124, 140, 173, 200. All quotations from the show in this article are taken from either this source or "'The Simpsons' Archive," http://www.snpp.com.
3. Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350 (1977).
4. Michael Lewis, "Faking It," New York Times Magazine (July 15, 2001) at 32.
5. Carl Matheson, "'The Simpsons,' Hyper-irony, and the Meaning of Life," in "The Simpsons" and Philosophy, at 118-19.
6. 2 Henry VI, 4.2.78.
7. Daniel J. Kornstein, Kill All the Lawyers? Shakespeare's Legal Appeal (1994) at 22-23, 26-28.
8. Id., at 28-32.
9. One could also reason that someone who led the '60s legal revolution might also participate in its sexual revolution.
LARRY M. WERTHEIM is a lawyer with Kennedy & Graven, Chtd., in Minneapolis. He expresses his appreciation to Joel and Ira for their consultations.