True Grit and the Law

Various legal bloggers have commented on the surprising number of legal issues addressed in the recent Coen Brothers’ movie True Grit. There are contract issues, evidence issues, and federalism problems, among others. The protagonist, Mattie Ross, succeeds in large part because of her extensive legal knowledge. As a property professor, I was happy to see that she knows what a writ of replevin is, and uses the threat of getting one to good advantage.

True Grit also includes some interesting law and economics concepts about incentives. In their roles as public officials, Rooster Cogburn and other law enforcement officials show little if any interest in tracking down the fugitive who killed Mattie’s father. That may be because they have little incentive to do so. But Cogburn is much more motivated and effective when Mattie offers him a reward. Once he starts acting as, essentially, a private bounty hunter, his incentives change and so does his performance. The same goes for the Texas Ranger who helps them catch the killer, and also seems to be motivated primarily by reward money. Research by economist Alex Tabarrok shows that such incentives work in the real world too. He finds that for profit private bounty hunters are, on average, much more effective in tracking down fugitives from justice than government officials are.

Finally, it’s worth briefly addressing the federalism issues raised by True Grit. Rooster Cogburn is a federal marshal. Why is he pursuing Tom Chaney, given that Chaney is charged only with state offenses (murders committed in Texas and Arkansas)? One possibility is that Cogburn is doing so because Chaney has fled to an Indian Territory, where federal officials have jurisdiction. Another is that Cogburn is acting in a purely private capacity, essentially as a bounty hunter.

More difficult are the federalism questions raised by the activities of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, who helps Mattie and Cogburn track down the killer. As a state law enforcement official outside his home state, he doesn’t have any jurisdiction. Perhaps he too is acting essentially in his private capacity. Alternatively, maybe there was some kind of agreement between Texas and Arkansas allowing him to track down Texas fugitives there.

On a slightly more serious note, I thought that the treatment of legal issues in True Grit was generally much more realistic and effective than that in most other movies. It’s just one of many reasons why this is the best movie I have seen in some time.

UPDATE: The Blackbook Legal Blog has an interesting post addressing some of the more philosophical issues relating to the rule of law that are raised by the movie.