The title itself is an ironic play on words, because as this film plays out, nobody is treated justly -- every character, even the central protagonist played by Al Pacino has either been screwed by the system of justice, or is part of the system that screws others. The "justice" shown in this film is only lip service to a system that is rotten from top to bottom. This is a satire, and a comedy, but there are deeper issues brewing here, because although what happens is an exaggeration of the twisted justice in real life, it also shows the heart beat of how power and politics and justice flourish side-by-side-by-side in the real world.
Anyone who reads the newspapers or watches serious news programs on TV knows that political personalities, individuals in the justice system, corporations, even the media members themselves, are in the news frequently, due to their questionable or shady dealings, or because of the appearance of something untoward which they are involved in.
Examples: a) a commentator recently was forced to resign his position as a national syndicated columnist and TV commentator because it was revealed he accepted over $200,000 from the Bush Administration in a bribe to promote the Bush position on "No Child Left Behind" (the education legislation); b) former Connecticut Governor James Rowland is sentenced to a year in prison following a corruption scandal in which he took over $100,000 for political favors; c) Wal-Mart pays $11 million for hiring illegal aliens to wash floors in many of their stores against federal immigration laws. There are many more recent examples of breaches of law and justice, but these are typical cases.
Meantime, even Pacino's character, Arthur, who was an honest, hard-charging upstanding lawyer for 12 years, who stood up for clients and argued with those who perverted justice, falls into the trap of sleazy corrupt deal-making to save his career and his butt. The system is so dishonest, even honest lawyers fall into the black hole of corruption.
What makes Judge Fleming tick? He is simply a powerful person with no understanding or empathy for those brought before him. He is deeply entrenched in a system that has, up until now, allowed him to be arrogant, pompous, and ignore the law -- in effect, create his own personal cynical brand of "justice." When an attorney brings an accused criminal before Fleming, and Fleming reads aloud the other times this person has been in the court for violations, Fleming asks, "Can't you decide what you want to be when you grow up?" The accused man says he is a Colts fan, throwing ridicule back at Fleming. To which Fleming replies: "You are a revolting despicable scum of the earth who should be taken out and squashed like a cockroach."
In the first place, the courtroom should be a place where solemn statements of fact and of evidence are heard, not trashy rhetoric like what Fleming offered; in the second place, if a man is "innocent until proven guilty," but his attorney is not even given a chance to offer any defense, this is not even a mockery of justice, it is theater of the absurd. After Fleming's attack on the accused man, the accused man's lawyer says, "I object -- my client hasn't been found guilty yet." And the judge says, "you're right ... let's see, it's 9:40; at 9:4courtroom should be a place where solemn statements of fact and of evidence are heard, not trashy rhetoric like what Fleming offered; in the second place, if a man is "innocent until proven guilty," but his attorney is not even given a chance to offer any defense, this is not even a mockery of justice, it is theater of the absurd. After Fleming's attack on the accused man, the accused man's lawyer says, "I object -- my client hasn't been found guilty yet." And the judge says, "you're right ... let's see, it's 9:40; at 9:41 he'll be found guilty as charged. When Arthur urges the judge to give consideration to Arthur's client -- an innocent man trapped in jail on wrongful charges -- Fleming says: "I don't give a shit about your client." And it's obvious Fleming is telling the truth -- because he doesn't give "a shit" about anything except his own power base and his amusement.
What makes Fleming tick when he is accused of rape? Political power manipulating makes him tick. He in effect bribes Arthur into defending him -- which will make Fleming look better politically if an attorney who is his nemesis represents him as though he really believes he is innocent -- by threatening to have Arthur disbarred for a minor infraction of law ethics a few years back. "Better take the case, says Judge Rayford to Arthur, "there's some very powerful people in this town who can ruin your career." The classic irony here is that Fleming needs Arthur for his "moral integrity" and his "positive image" but if he doesn't cooperate with Fleming he'll be disbarred for being "unethical."
What makes Arthur tick? He is determined to seek justice; he represents the underdog, and stands up to a congressional committee whose members are seeking to make themselves look good in the public eye by supposedly going after corrupt lawyers (when the real people they should go after are the political power brokers). Arthur tries hard to get his innocent client out of jail, and feeling bad that the fellow has been beaten up. And he tries to get his client who is accused of robbing a taxi driver (and wears bizarre cross-dressing apparel) a chance at probation, saying to him: "You can't lose hope; you can't lose hope." It is like Arthur is saying that to himself, as well. All that said, still, Arthur beds down with a member of that congressional committee, so his ethics are not entirely squeaky clean.
What makes Jay tick? He got a murderer off on a "technicality," but now the murderer has killed two more people -- both kids. He shaves his head bald, and is emotionally devastated because he knows what he did as a lawyer was contemptible, and that "justice" is not served when crafty attorneys "do their jobs" by helping people avoid justice through loopholes and maneuvering. He is challenging the corrupt system, but he, like Arthur, certainly needs to make a living, and is trapped in a system that is rotten.
What makes Judge Rayford tick? Played by Jack Warden, is basically a nice man, but apparently he is suicidal -- and the question needs to be asked as to why he is on the bench at all. If he is known to have tried to have killed himself, why is he sitting in judgment of others? He likes Arthur, because he respects what idealism Arthur still has, but he also knows that if Arthur doesn't cooperate with the system -- and doesn't stop trying to change the system -- Arthur's career will be blown apart.
And Rayford is part of the humor of the film, too: when a suspect on trial in the courtroom starts eating lottery tickets, creating a scene with pushing, shoving, and yelling, Rayford pulls out a handgun from his holster inside his robe and starts firing into the air. He gets attention immediately, to say the least. "May I remind you," he yells, "that you're in a court of law!" The irony and humor of that remark is typical of the way the director makes points, satirical points, about the badly flawed system of justice in America. Later Rayford explains to Arthur (Kirkland), that as to the reason he packs "heat," "there's law and there's order ... [and the gun] is order."