The Runaway Jury

by John Grisham

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 541

The getting of justice is the alleged business of a trial. But in most of Grisham's novels, "justice" is relative. Whatever readers may think of tobacco companies, in this novel they are corrupting entities whom justice demands be brought down. But bringing them down seems impossible unless their adversary uses corrupt means. Marlee and Nicholas decide that Fitch and his employers violate absolute moral standards. But then do these do-gooders violate moral standards by their manipulation of the jury? The novel broaches the issues of ends and means, of moral relativism.

While pretending to negotiate with Fitch to fix the verdict, Marlee brags, "It'll work because all the players are corrupt. You're corrupt. Your clients are corrupt. My partner and I are corrupt. Corrupt but smart. We pollute the system in such a way that we cannot be detected." While functioning as a part of her act to hoodwink Fitch, the statement has more than a kernel of truth. She and her partner have lied repeatedly and toyed with the unsuspecting members of the jury. But causing the dismissals of jurors who do not share their sentiments or who cannot be convinced, Nicholas and Marlee pollute the system. Is the verdict then fair? Well, the bad guys did lose. But what about the merits of the case, on either side? Sadly, the merits never mattered. In the novel's last scene, Marlee justifies herself to Fitch by claiming, "I lied and cheated because that's what your client understands." Is that statement sufficient justification? Grisham's novel sweeps readers up in the tension of the plot, but sober reflection reveals that the novel poses a world without standards.

Commitment to something does remain a value in this world despite the moral relativism. Late in the novel, the sifting of the hints about Marlee's background reveals, too late for Fitch, that both her parents died of smoking-induced disease. She won Nicholas to her cause, and together they scoped out tobacco trials. She emerges as a crusader avenging the deaths of her parents. She dedicates her life to fighting a vastly powerful enemy, to subjecting this enemy to the deserved punishment it has been able to avoid. Commitment is a possible standard of evaluation in the otherwise self-serving world of tobacco litigation. Yet even the plaintiffs' lawyers are in the case not for commitment against tobacco but to tap into a law suit market that will become hugely lucrative should they manage to win. And they are not above bribery to ensure a win. Only Marlee (and perhaps some of the plaintiffs' witnesses) gets into the battle in the spirit of crusaders. Marlee is greedy in part: After using the millions she extorts from Fitch in a complex stock manipulation that further depresses the value of tobacco stock after the verdict, she gives the money back to Fitch. But then, she cleared huge profits through her stock trades, enough that she can afford to give back millions and still live very comfortably. Her crusade had its material rewards.

So Marlee and Nicholas impress with their commitment and their resilience in the face of any obstacle. Yet they also disturb with their methods and their greed, a lesser greed than that of other characters, but greed nonetheless.

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