No other situation exudes a greater sense of authority and justice than when you're standing in a courtroom before the one seated above you, who's looking down at everyone gathered.
It's hard to capture properly on film. Throughout cinema history, judge characters have proven tricky to portray for any actor—it takes a certain kind of legacy for a judge to make it feel as though the defense and prosecution are both at the whims of the court itself.
Only a handful of actors in a handful of movies have had the ability to command an entire courtroom and uphold the values of that courtroom in a way that truly comes across on camera.
The question of moral fortitude can become foggy. The applications of the law can seem unfair. But when an actor gets the bench right, few character roles are as engaging as the one of the high-seated judge.
Here are our picks for the best judges in cinema history and the actors who brought them to life.
7. Chamberlain Haller (My Cousin Vinny)
During the trial of Bill and Stan—two college students accused of killing a convenience store clerk—they are at the mercy of Judge Haller.
For his part, Haller is an old-fashioned judge. He believes in the old ways and obviously dislikes the Brooklyn street lawyer Vinny, who comes to bail out his cousin from a wrongful murder charge.
He continually holds Vinny in contempt of court and makes lines of enquiry into Vinny's legal background, which Vinny manages to hold at bay by the skin of his teeth.
In the end, Haller is impressed by Vinny's actions and grows to like the unconventional lawyer. It shows that Haller isn't a biased man; he's a fair and moral upholder of the law.
6. Henry X. Harper (Miracle on 34th Street)
As a man caught between the children of New York City and the belief that there's no such thing as Santa Claus, Judge Henry Harper finds himself in an unenviable position.
Throughout the trial of Kris Kringle, Judge Harper attempts to delay the case as much as possible. He's coming up for reelection and doesn't want to set anyone off, so he shows the people that he's willing to believe that Santa does indeed exist.
However, when he sees that the US Postal Service acknowledges the existence of Santa by delivering mail to him, Harper throws out the case and ensures that people everywhere can still believe in Kris Kringle.
In doing this, Judge Harper shows that he's more than self-interested through the trial and that he's genuinely happy for the children of the city.
5. H. Lee Sarokin (The Hurricane)
Although Judge Sarokin may not be on screen for an extended period of time, his role in the film is paramount when Rubin Carter takes his case before Judge Sarokin's court.
Portrayed by the venerated Hollywood icon Rod Steiger, Sarokin isn't expected to hear Carter's case because Carter pleaded his case directly before the New Jersey District Court instead of on appeal.
However, surprisingly, Sarokin takes the case and hears the arguments. Steiger is measured, calm, and in total control of his court as he hears the case of Rubin Carter—and his authority in the situation is something that permeates the screen with stoic grace.
4. Tyrone Kipler (The Rainmaker)
As Rudy Baylor takes the lead in his first case—a high-profile lawsuit against an insurance company that refused to pay out for the medical care of a teenager with cancer—he's truly out of his depth.
And as he begins the case, the first judge on the bench dies, only to be replaced by Judge Kipler. Judge Kipler is a hard-line, no-nonsense type who hates the big-wig pompousness of Jon Voight's Leo Drummond, the lead defense attorney.
Portrayed by Danny Glover, Kipler embodies a sense of justice that extends to the treatment of those who come before him. He treats everybody with respect until they do something to lose it, and he has an authority that makes lawyers understand who's in charge.
3. Judge Smails (Caddyshack)
"I've sent boys younger than you to the gas chamber. I didn't want to do it, but I felt I owed it to them."
Judge Smails is one of the most overtly bonkers judges in cinema. The hilarious ramblings of Smails are some of the best parts of Caddyshack, which itself is a beloved comedy classic about the dynamics of a socially elite country club.
His sense of attire and his roaming swagger around the club shows that he's the kind of man who exploits the law to suit his whims.
The audience never sees him in a courtroom, but we get the sense that it'd be the worst place to be tried as Smails lurches from one mood to the next with his pompous nature in tow.
2. Julius Hoffman (The Trial of the Chicago 7)
The real-life trial of the Chicago Seven was almost as crazy as the one depicted in Aaron Sorkin's movie. As the seven defendants attempt to prove their innocence before Judge Julius Hoffman, they find they're up against a tyrannical figure on the bench.
Judge Hoffman routinely hands out rulings that are blatantly out of line with the law and abuses his power on a daily basis. His overt dislike of the defendants is clear from their first moments in his court.
We, as the audience, hate Judge Hoffman with righteous fury—and that's all because of the incredible performance by Frank Langella. He becomes Hoffman's worst self with measured brutality and sadism, and that performance is perfectly weighted in the film.
1. Judge Dredd (Judge Dredd)
Karl Urban as the beloved comic book character is by far the best of the live-action adaptations. Judge Dredd sees him fight through a tower block to bring justice to Ma-Ma, the crime lord who lives at the top.
Throughout the film, Dredd is enclosed and trapped in a building he must quickly climb to avoid certain death. However, along with his trainee partner Judge Anderson, they uncover a conspiracy on their way to the top—and they break a few rules along the way.
Urban's performance is a masterful execution of the comic book character, whom fans are desperate to see again, making his character iconic and the fiercest judge to ever grace the big screen.