Aaron Sorkin's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' May Be Headed to Trial in June

Plus, Scott Rudin is given two weeks to film his theatrical production for use at the potential trial.
Courtesy of Everett Collection

By a twist of fate, one of the most famous fictional legal proceedings in literary history may be coming to a federal courthouse in New York. On Monday, a judge tentatively scheduled an extraordinary two-week trial beginning June 4 between the Harper Lee Estate and Scott Rudin's production company over a theatrical adaptation of Lee's 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The potential showdown pits creative liberties against an author's original vision, and the trial would occur in the week before and after the 2018 Tony Awards.

Lee's novel concerns a small-town attorney named Atticus Finch who defends a black defendant amid much racial prejudice in 1930s Alabama. For decades, literary aficionados have not only celebrated the book, but the character of Finch (played in a 1962 movie by Gregory Peck) has inspired many Americans to practice law as a profession.

Just before Lee died in 2015 at the age of 89, she granted Rudin the right to stage a theatrical adaptation. Rudin turned to Aaron Sorkin, whose own works include The West Wing and The Social Network, to write the script. When the results came in, Tonja Carter, who now runs the Lee Estate, objected. She claims that Rudin has violated a contractual provision by departing from the spirit of the novel, altering characters and even reshaping the fictional legal proceeding that functions as the climactic denouement of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Dueling lawsuits ensued. First, Carter sued in Alabama in March. Then, three weeks later, Rudin returned fire with his own lawsuit in New York. He offered to bring his cast (Jeff Daniels plays Finch) to show the judge that his version does no wrong.

The dispute is now stretching jurisprudence. While it's not uncommon to see litigants racing to the courthouse to gain a tactical edge, nor unprecedented for judges to consider who was first to file and special circumstances that might necessitate the second lawsuit proceeding, Carter aimed to get an Alabama judge to issue an injunction over what was happening up north. That caused the Alabama judge to remark, "This Court will not lightly interfere with the affairs of a sister court, particularly where the sister court appears to have raised sua sponte the impact of the 'prior pending action doctrine'..."

Meanwhile, in New York, Rudin pushed for expedited treatment with warning that his entire production could fall apart without quick resolution. That's because, according to one of his co-producers, the production of To Kill a Mockingbird needed to raise millions of dollars from investors by next month, and it would be nearly impossible with the legal cloud surrounding rights. What's more, tickets needed to be sold, the theater needed to be secured, and the cast couldn't go without jobs for more than half a year while the court case played out.

On Monday, both sides appeared before U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres. The hearing took place just one day before the play was to begin its two-week workshop.

Jonathan Zavin, the attorney for Rudin, argued to begin discovery right away. He said that if the Alabama judge rejected a motion to dismiss Carter's lawsuit for lack of jurisdiction, everything could be revisited, but Zavin didn't think that would happen. He added that there really was no judicial overlap, that Rudin's lawsuit had additional claims with respect to Carter's representation, but offered to limit fact-finding to the play itself and not Carter and her powers. What was most essential, he contended, was figuring out whether the play derogates from Lee's book.

Matthew Lembke, the attorney for Carter, believed it was the judge in the first-filed case who should make the decision on which case should proceed.

Ultimately, Torres agreed that the Alabama court should decide the threshold question of the proper forum for the dispute. And but...

"I will not, however, dismiss or stay this action pending the Alabama court's decision," said Torres at the hearing. "I am aware that the Second Circuit has cautioned that a district court may be in abuse ever its discretion 'when it refuses to stay or dismiss a duplicative suit.' Here, however, plaintiff has a compelling need for speedy resolution of the issues in this case.... Therefore, if this action is stayed, and the Alabama court later decides that this Court is the proper forum for the lawsuit or that it lacks personal jurisdiction over plaintiff, plaintiff will lose crucial time in resolving this dispute."

Rudin wanted a trial beginning May 21, but the judge thought that was too soon and scheduled it to commence on June 4.

Just as exceptional is a magistrate judge's order detailing the scheduling in the coming weeks.

According to the order, Rudin can petition the New York court to have one or more scenes from his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird filmed for the purpose of showing it to the jury during the trial. But he'll need to do it before May 15. That means just two weeks to get the actors up to speed and turn around a production that wasn't supposed to open until November. And if judges in New York and Alabama consent, trial-goers will get the first peek at how Sorkin has imagined Finch.