Sonia Sotomayor, Pop-Culture Maven

From Annie Hall to Perry Mason, the confirmation hearings have been filled with film and TV references


I never thought the Sonia Sotomayor hearings would be a source of film and TV references, but yesterday we had the Annie Hall moment, and today we got this:

An episode of the television show “Perry Mason” influenced a young Sonia Sotomayor to become a prosecutor, she testified Wednesday at her confirmation hearing to become the nation’s first Hispanic Supreme Court justice…

“No, my job as a prosecutor is to do justice, and justice is served when a guilty man is convicted and an innocent man is not,” she quoted the prosecutor as saying.

“That TV character said something that motivated my choices in life,” Sotomayor said.

I guess that’s plausible enough, but really — being inspired to become a defense attorney by Perry Mason is one thing, but this is the first I’ve ever heard of Hamilton Burger, the losingest prosecutor in the history of the criminal justice system, inspiring someone to become a prosecutor. Though as someone pointed out, Burger would probably be more likely to get appointed to the Supreme Court than Mason. The fact that he lost almost every case doesn’t stand in the way of his nomination, whereas Perry has all kinds of skeletons in his closet.

For those who are wondering, like Senator Franken, about the episode where Perry lost a case, I refer you to the Perry Mason Show Book. The episode in question is “The Case of the Deadly Verdict,” which was a pure ratings-stunt kind of thing: the trial takes place at the beginning of the episode, and though Perry comes out on top in the end, the episode is set up so the network could promote the hell out of it (“Perry Mason loses a case!”). As you can see from the above discussion, the promotion worked.


Sonia Sotomayor, Pop-Culture Maven

  1. What's your point? That real life isn't the way it's depicted on TV?

    On West Wing the president routinely suffered from a crisis of conscience, grappling with moral and ethical dilemnas, forced to choose the greater good among unsavoury options, but meanwhile the actual president played golf.

    • What’s your point? That real life isn’t the way it’s depicted on TV?

      It isn’t? I decry your lack of faith in the judicial system as represented by Mason and Burger (and sometimes Matlock).

  2. Brilliant post. I was wondering about that all day. Thank you.

  3. This video is the best argument against Supreme Court confirmation hearings in Canada I have yet seen.

  4. So, it's kind of like the Washington Generals (the opponents of the Harlem Globetrotters) inspiring young boys and girls to become professional basketball players.

    • Well, presumably the prosecutor on Perry Mason wasn't ALWAYS trying to convict criminals defended by Perry Mason. I mean, sure, he always lost to Perry Mason, but A) isn't Perry Mason supposed to be basically the best defense attorney who ever lived, and B) weren't most, if not almost ALL of Perry mason's clients actually innocent? I mean, I'm sure he got a guilty person off from time to time on the show, but wasn't the point of the show mostly for us to see Perry Mason using his superior skill to help innocent people accused of crimes get justice? The fact that Hamilton Burger had a ludicrously bad record of convicting the large numbers of (mostly) innocent people defended by the greatest lawyer of all time (TM) doesn't necessarily make him the Washington Generals of prosecutors. Maybe he routinely trounced other lawyers who weren't Perry Mason. Maybe he consistently convicted GUILTY people, and just had a lousy track record convicting innocent people (while Perry Mason regularly defended innocent people, so Burger having a hard time convicting innocent people meant he had a hard time beating Perry Mason).

      Maybe I've now spent a bit too much time defending a fictitious character.

    • Further to what LKO says: my Dad had a theory that Burger later prosecuted and convicted all the people who confessed on the stand under Perry’s questioning. That would at least have gotten his conviction rate up to 50-50.

      The one problem with that theory is that, like Columbo, Perry got his victims to confess on such flimsy evidence that once they wised up, they’d probably take back their confessions, hire a lawyer (maybe even Perry Mason again — that’s how he makes his money, defending the murderers he caught in the episodes).

      • And, again, keep in mind that we only ever see Burger vs. Mason. Surely he goes up against dozens of other lawyers in his average year. One could theoretically win the American league pennant without ever beating the Yankees all season. Maybe the poor guy has a 99% failure rate vs. Perry Mason, and a 99% success rate against everyone else!

  5. And similarly, the Washington Generals probably are a fairly decent set of basketball players, who always 'happen' to lose to the Globetrotters. I never claimed Hamilton Burger was a terrible lawyer, just like I never claimed the Washington Generals were all terrible basketball players. My point was that they were another set of 'characters' who always lost to the 'protagonist'.