Study Guide

To Kill a Mockingbird Justice and Judgment

By Harper Lee

Justice and Judgment

Chapter 11

"Atticus, you must be wrong...."

"How's that?"

"Well, most folks seem to think they're right and you're wrong...." (11.54-56)

If there's one thing that we learned from jeggings, Uggs, and chain wallets, it's that the majority isn't always right. But Atticus doesn't need anyone to teach him that lessons. He already knows that individual conscience is a better guide to justice than majority opinion.

Chapter 16
Jeremy Atticus Finch (Jem)

"You goin' to court this morning?" asked Jem. […]

"I am not. 't's morbid, watching a poor devil on trial for his life. Look at all those folks, it's like a Roman carnival."

"They hafta try him in public, Miss Maudie," I said. "Wouldn't be right if they didn't."

"I'm quite aware of that," she said. "Just because it's public, I don't have to go, do I?" (16.40-48)

This is one reason that courtroom cameras are controversial: making trials public is one way of guaranteeing that they're fair (not that it worked in this case), but it also turns the whole thing into a circus.

Chapter 17
Jean Louise Finch (Scout)

As Judge Taylor banged his gavel, Mr. Ewell was sitting smugly in the witness chair, surveying his handiwork. With one phrase he had turned happy picknickers into a sulky, tense, murmuring crowd, being slowly hypnotized by gavel taps lessening in intensity until the only sound in the courtroom was a dim pink-pink-pink: the judge might have been rapping the bench with a pencil. (17.95)

The courtroom spectators get what they came for with Mr. Ewell: sex, scandal, and hate-mongering. Notice how Judge Taylor calms them down by "hypnotizing" them. This isn't a crowd ready to listen to reason. (Let's put it this way—we wouldn't want to see them anywhere near a Wal-Mart on Black Friday morning.)

So far, things were utterly dull: nobody had thundered, there were no arguments between opposing counsel, there was no drama; a grave disappointment to all present, it seemed. Atticus was proceeding amiably, as if he were involved in a title dispute. With his infinite capacity for calming turbulent seas, he could make a rape case as dry as a sermon. (17.56)

And all these people wanted was a fun day out, right? Atticus ruins everything with his fair, reasonable, and calm approach to deciding a man's fate. Spoilsport.

Chapter 19
Charles Baker Harris (Dill)

"It was just him I couldn't stand," Dill said. […] "That old Mr. Gilmer doin' him thataway, talking so hateful to him—[…] It was the way he said it made me sick, plain sick. […] The way that man called him 'boy' all the time an' sneered at him, an' looked around at the jury every time he answered-[…] It ain't right, somehow it ain't right to do 'em that way. Hasn't anybody got any business talkin' like that—it just makes me sick." (19.155-165)

Poor Dill. He picks up on the ugly injustice of Mr. Gilmer's questioning, and he's too much of a kid to accept it. Does he notice because he's an outsider? Or is he, like Atticus, naturally sensitive to injustice?

Chapter 20
Atticus Finch

"She has committed no crime, she has merely broken a rigid and time-honored code of our society, a code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst as unfit to live with. She is the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance, but I cannot pity her: she is white. She knew full well the enormity of her offense, but because her desires were stronger than the code she was breaking, she persisted in breaking it." (20.43)

It's an enormous injustice to have Tom on trial and pre-convicted for something he didn't do. But Mayella is also a victim of injustice: dirt poor, kept ignorant, raped by her father, and forbidden to seek companionship from the one person who was ever nice to her. No surprise that Atticus is the one to see it.

"I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system—that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty." (20.51-52)

If Atticus had a car, it'd have a "Be the Change You Wish to See in the World" bumper sticker. While he says here that he's no idealist, he's been realistic throughout about his extremely low chances of winning this case. In his closing argument, he's acting as if the outcome he knows is impossible is actually the only possible one, in an attempt to make it so.

Chapter 23
Atticus Finch

Atticus was saying, "With people like us—that's our share of the bill. We generally get the juries we deserve. Our stout Maycomb citizens aren't interested, in the first place. In the second place, they're afraid. [..] Well, what if—say, Mr. Link Deas had to decide the amount of damages to award, say, Miss Maudie, when Miss Rachel ran over her with a car. Link wouldn't like the thought of losing either lady's business at his store, would he? So he tells Judge Taylor that he can't serve on the jury because he doesn't have anybody to keep store for him while he's gone. So Judge Taylor excuses him. Sometimes he excuses him wrathfully." (23.46-49)

Personal concerns are more important for the people of Maycomb than public duty. When only white men can serve on a jury, what happens to a "jury of one's peers"? And when your peers do everything they can to avoid serving, who's left? (Judging by the number of times Shmoop's been called to jury duty… not much.)

Chapter 25
Jean Louise Finch (Scout)

How could this be so, I wondered, as I read Mr. Underwood's editorial. Senseless killing—Tom had been given due process of law to the day of his death; he had been tried openly and convicted by twelve good men and true; my father had fought for him all the way. Then Mr. Underwood's meaning became clear: Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed. (25.28)

If the real trial takes place in the "secret courts of men's hearts," is the public trial pointless? What purpose did it serve? Is anything different now?

Chapter 30
Heck Tate

"I'm not a very good man, sir, but I am sheriff of Maycomb County. Lived in this town all my life an' I'm goin' on forty-three years old. Know everything that's happened here since before I was born. There's a black boy dead for no reason, and the man responsible for it's dead. Let the dead bury the dead this time, Mr. Finch. Let the dead bury the dead." (30.60)

Heck Tate may be sheriff, but he's not 100% committed to the letter of the law. Is his approach actually more just, here? Could Atticus actually be wrong for once?