Tag Archives: Miriam Gurko

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.

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  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)