February 21, 2024

The New Top Ten: Judd for the Defense

It seems to me to have been a few months ago when I made some kind of rash promise that I was going to update my Top Ten show list, which you see on the sidebar. As I say, it was a rash thing to do, because here we are months later, well into the new year, and if you were to check that list, you'd see that nothing had changed. It isn't that I bite off more than I can chew, or promise more than I can deliver, or at least I don't think it is. I've thought about it, which has to count for something. And I wasn't trying to deceive anyone—matter of fact, the reason I mentioned it when I did was to give me time to do something about it. 

Well, I'm finally doing just that. There are several series out there that have earned a place on the current Top Ten list, and I think it's about time to give them their due. Notice that I'm not doing them all at once; after that first paragraph, there should be no explanation necessary, and this way I get a little more mileage out of it, a few more pieces to help fill out those quiet weeks. There's also an ulterior motive, as always: the more I talk about this, the more I force myself to follow through, lest you hold me accountable and demonstrate to everyone out there that I really am the fraud you suspected me of being.

But if you choose to bring that charge against me, I can't think of anyone better to defend me than the protagonist of the first addition to the list, Clinton Judd, the high-priced, high-profile defense attorney of Judd for the Defense. I rediscovered this show a few years ago, and almost immediately realized that my memories from having seen it originally were doing a great disservice to the show. What I had remembered, back when I was eight years old, was a show with a liberal viewpoint, one sharply at odds with the law-and-order ideology I grew up with and cultivated over the next five decades. Call them do-gooders, bleeding hearts, whatever you want, but Judd was definitely not Perry Mason.

And you know what? It isn't Perry Mason, and that's a good thing. Whereas Mason's pleasure lies in its predictability through a formula that plays episode after episode with little variation, Judd gives us something that's in stark contrast: a lawyer dealing with sometimes shockingly contemporary issues, ones that aren't always cut-and-dried, black-and-white, right-and-wrong, and may not even be solvable within the 60 minutes allotted to the story—in fact, we don't always even see the verdict come in.

That's because Judd, for the Defense is not a show about whodunnit, or at least not always. It's a show about ideas, about what a variable thing the law can be when you take the time to study it, how defending the law isn't always popular, and why it's more important than ever nowadays. John Adams—the same Adams from The Adams Chronicles—wrote, in his defense of the British soldiers charged with the Boston Massacre, that "it's of more importance to community, that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt should be punished." It was, Adams went on to argue, a distillation of Blackstone's Ratio, that it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer. (Benjamin Franklin actually upped the ante; he made the ration 100 guilty and one innocent.) In other words, you don't apply the law only for the case today, but for the case tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

At a time when individual rights are being trampled upon with increasing frequency, when the application of the law itself is being politicized beyond what we might have thought possible, and when law enforcement agencies often view citizens not as human beings to be protected, but as threats to be disarmed and persecuted, one readily comes to appreciate the importance of having someone standing in your corner, defending your rights, making sure you're not being taken advantage of by a system that can seem to care more about obtaining convictions than imparting justice. Someone once said that if the guilty occasionally seem to use the system to go free, it's so that the system can protect the innocent, the law exists not to punish the guilty, but to free the innocent, and that put things in a completely different perspective for me. Perhaps I have become more liberal over the years, at least in some ways. I suppose it's part and parcel of becoming a reactionary.

As I mentioned above, Judd is often a show about ideas, and shows like that can get preachy if you're not careful. In truth, there are moments when Judd seems to be standing on a soapbox instead of inside a courtroom, but that doesn't happen all that often, and even when it does, you're not really irritated by it, primarily because of the power with which these polemics are being delivered by Judd's star, Carl Betz. Best-known as Alex Stone, the pediatrician-husband of Donna Reed on The Donna Reed Show, Betz plays Clinton Judd with an edgy toughness; a man of integrity, committed to justice, and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it for his client—even a client he doesn't particularly like, whose cause he doesn't especially approve of, because justice belongs to everyone, not just those who don't need it.

I also like Judd's able assistant, Ben Caldwell, played by Stephen Young; it's hard to pigeonhole him in the traditional mentor/student relationship we see so often on television (Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, etc.) You can tell he's already a good lawyer (he gets to try a couple of cases during the series, and Judd wouldn't have him at his side if he wasn't); he's learning from Judd how to be a great lawyer. 

As I've gotten older over the years, I've begun to appreciate that not everything is as cut-and-dried as one would like it to be. This is especially the case when it comes to legal dramas. (Get it? Legal drama? Case? Never mind.) In an episode of The Defenders, another series I'm starting to reassess, Robert Reed's character, young lawyer Kenneth Preston, complains to his father, experienced attorney Lawrence, (E.G. Marshall), that sometimes the law is too unbending, to which the elder Preston replies that, as an attorney, it's Kenneth's job to figure out how to bend it when that's what's needed. 

I find myself feeling the same way, understanding that there is a dynamic that exists between law enforcement—the entire justice system, really—and the average citizen that is, right now, not a particularly healthy one. Maybe that's the way it's always been—unequal access, unequal outcomes—or maybe it's just become more pronounced over the last couple of decades; it's certainly become more political. Whatever the case, it's true that political conservatives, who have always been the greatest champions of law and order, have come to understand that the law is not always your friend, and it doesn't always work for justice. I've voiced this complaint many times over the years, particularly in the series of posts I wrote a few years ago about how America is more and more resembling a police state (You can see this one, this one, and this one for starters), so I'm not going to plow that ground again. 

My point is that the oft-heard argument that "if you're innocent, you have nothing to worry about" doesn't hold water any more. Perry Mason often tells his clients not to talk to police unless he's with them (and this was before Miranda), and I think this has only increased over the years. In such an atmosphere, lawyers like Clinton Judd, lawyers who realize what "justice" really means, become very appealing characters. There is a reason, after all, why more legal dramas tell the story of defense attorneys than they do prosecutors. It's difficult for us to envision ourselves as the murder, the rapist, the bank robber—but it's no longer impossible for us to suppose that we're innocent citizens who've found ourselves in some kind of Kafkaesque world where we're on trial for a crime we didn't commit, and nobody will listen to us. Judd, and shows like it, exist to remind us that there is one person who'll listen, and who'll fight on your behalf: your lawyer.

Provided you have the right lawyer, of course. That's something that Judd's very aware of; he's committed to taking pro bono cases on occasion for that precise purpose, but you get the idea that it does trouble him, the idea that not every defendant has the same access to receive the same benefits that his clients do, and it fuels his determination to fight on behalf of that amorphous, sometimes unbending concept of justice. It's not a matter of ideology or altruism; it always comes back to the idea that you preserve the rights of the guilty in order to protect the rights of the innocent. 

There are other things I like about Judd; the gravitas and literacy with which the issues are presented; the absence of stock characters such as Mason's Della Street, who—let's be honest here—can get a little annoying sometimes with her cutesy comments and presumptions; and the disinclination toward wrapping things up at the end with a nice little joke or feel-good moment—such scenes happen but rarely.

I've written about Judd a couple of times—here and here—and so I don't want to be guilty of repeating myself. And anyway, these Top Ten essays were never formal reviews of the shows themselves so much as they were descriptions of my personal relationships with the shows, the little things that elevate them from something I enjoy to something just a little bit more. Judd for the Defense is one of those series I get a great pleasure from; a serious show that makes one think, but also an exciting, enjoyable drama that one looks forward to each week. But it's also a noble depiction of what justice really means, and while there might be more than a dash of idealism in that presentation, well, I think that's all right, too. After all, a fella can dream, can't he? TV  


  1. Certainly an apropos time to cover this series. I suspect watching it now would invoke pride in the past and shame in the present.

  2. Is the show streaming anywhere? Only a few episodes are on YouTube and they are poor quality.

    1. Unfortunately not; there's a gray market set out there, but I suspect it includes the same elements. The better-quality recordings I have seen tend to have come from the show's brief run on TV Land, and are heavily edited to provide for more commercials. If you can get past the quality of the recording, though, the quality of the show is superior.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!