The Contending Lawyers Can Fight, Not for Justice, But to Win

Clarence Darrow? Miriam Gurko? Apocryphal?

darrow14Dear Quote Investigator: Clarence Darrow was a famous American lawyer with a sobering view of the justice system. The following words have been attributed to him:

A courtroom is not a place where truth and innocence inevitably triumph; it is only an arena where contending lawyers fight, not for justice, but to win.

I have had difficulty trying to find a supporting citation. Would you please examine the origin of this statement?

Quote Investigator: The quotation above was inaccurate; however, it was partially based on a passage written by Clarence Darrow in his 1922 book “Crime: Its Cause and Treatment”. Darrow suggested that in an ideal world the tribunal responsible for legal judgements would be all-knowing and all-understanding, but actual tribunals clearly have been unable to achieve this type of discernment and perfection. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The law furnishes no means of making these judgments. All it furnishes is a tribunal where the contending lawyers can fight, not for justice, but to win. It is little better than the old wager of battle where the parties hired fighters and the issue was settled with swords. Oftentimes the only question settled in court is the relative strength and cunning of the lawyers.

The words above were remembered by an author named Miriam Gurko who in 1965 published a biography titled “Clarence Darrow”. The following passage contained Gurko’s conception of Darrow’s thoughts together with a short direct quotation from Darrow: 2

As a lawyer, he knew it was not enough to be innocent. Proving one’s innocence was a long, hard, expensive process, and a highly uncertain one. A courtroom, he was to say later, is not a place where truth and innocence inevitably triumph; it is only an arena where contending lawyers fight, “not for justice, but to win.”

QI believes that the text in boldface above was the source of the common modern quotation. However, the passage was a composite, and most of the words were crafted by Gurko and not by Darrow. Only the final six words were enclosed in quotation marks.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1984 “The San Diego Union-Tribune” of San Diego, California published a piece about the judicial system in the Soviet Union. The article began with an instance of the quotation attributed to Darrow: 3

A courtroom (in the United States) is not a place where truth and innocence inevitably triumph; it is only an arena where contending lawyers fight not for justice, but to win. — Clarence Darrow

In 1994 an article in the “The Hartford Courant” of Hartford, Connecticut stated that a lawyer had posted the expression on the wall of his office: 4

“The concept of guilty or not guilty is not necessarily a search for the truth,” said Hartford lawyer Hubert J. Santos.

To back up that assertion, Santos keeps on the wall above his chair a picture of Clarence Darrow, with a quote from the famous lawyer: “A courtroom is not a place where truth and innocence inevitably triumph; it is only an arena where contending lawyers fight not for justice, but to win.”

In conclusion, Clarence Darrow wrote the text given in the 1922 citation above, but he did not write the text in the 1965 citation. Thus, the modern quotation presented by the question was inaccurate. QI suggests that the quotation seeker should select and employ an excerpt from the 1922 work.

Image Notes: Picture of the Colosseum in Rome from LoggaWiggler at Pixabay. Image of Clarence Darrow circa 1913 from Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Lee Edwards whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1922, Crime: Its Cause and Treatment by Clarence Darrow, Chapter XVI: The Law and the Criminal, Quote Page 128, Thomas Y. Crowell, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1965, Clarence Darrow by Miriam Gurko, Chapter 17: The Trial of Clarence Darrow, Quote Page 170, Thomas Y. Crowell, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1984 February 5, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Article Title: Adversarial facet absent from Soviet justice, Author/Byline: Pat Zaharopoulos (Deputy California attorney general), (Epigraph at start of article), Section: OPINION, Quote Page C-1, San Diego, California. (NewsBank Access World News)
  4. 1994 March 13, The Hartford Courant, Shooting Holes in ‘Whole Truth’ – Winning Stressed as Goal in Court, Author/Byline: Matthew Kauffman (Courant Staff Writer), Quote Page A1, Hartford, Connecticut. (NewsBank Access World View)