Judge Clears Path for 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Trial in June

The Harper Lee Estate and Scott Rudin are set to do battle in New York over Aaron Sorkin's version after an Alabama judge transfers the venue of the case.
Léo L. Fuchs/Universal Pictures/Photofest
'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1962)

Usually, the most unrealistic portrayal of law and order in popular entertainment is just how quickly trials happen. But then again, merely three months after a dispute between the Harper Lee Estate and Scott Rudin spilled into a public court, the two sides must now prepare for a trial in June.

Dueling lawsuits — one in Alabama, another in New York — were filed over whether a theatrical adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird derogates from Lee's 1960 novel. Rudin optioned rights, then had Aaron Sorkin write the script, only to hear objection from Tonja Carter, who runs the estate and alleges it breaches contract by not being sufficiently faithful to the original.

About a week ago, a New York judge granted Rudin's motion to expedite the controversy to trial with the important caveat that an Alabama court, where Carter first filed, would have to agree that the case was better adjudicated up north. Well, on Monday, that's exactly what happened as the Alabama judge has ruled for a transfer.

In the decision, U.S. District Court Judge William Steele decides that his court does hold jurisdiction over Rudin's company, but nevertheless, finds New York to be the more convenient forum. And that's partly due to an offer by the producer to bring the production in the courtroom. First proposed in the complaint, staging Sorkin's vision of To Kill a Mockingbird for a judge and jury is looking to be an ingenious move.

"To be clear, the Court makes no definitive ruling that Rudinplay is or is not entitled to stage a live presentation of the Play as part of the trial of this action," writes Steele. "What the Court is saying, however, is that (i) the trial court may deem it beneficial, or even necessary, for the finder of fact to observe a live performance of the Play in order to resolve the question of whether Rudinplay has or has not violated Paragraph 12 [of the contract]; and (ii) as a practical matter, that option will be available to the trial judge and parties only if venue is transferred to the Southern District of New York, inasmuch as it would be cost-prohibitive, massively inconvenient, and in all likelihood logistically impossible to compel the entire stage production to relocate from New York to Alabama for trial."

Technically, Jeff Daniels won't be performing the role of Atticus Finch live at trial. Instead, the New York judge has told Rudin that if the jury is to witness the production, he should film the scene(s) before the end of next week. There will likely be pre-trial motions directed at evidence before a two-week trial that's now scheduled to begin on June 4 (which coincides with the 2018 Tony Awards).

In Monday's decision, the Alabama judge also runs through public interest factors in having the case adjudicated in New York. He notes the agreement was negotiated there and the play will open there (in November, pending the outcome of trial). It's not a big tipping point, but neither is Carter's preference for Alabama for the same reasons.

The judge concludes, "In sum, the Court concludes that private-interest factors strongly favor transfer of this action to the Southern District of New York, and that public-interest factors are neutral or modestly favor such transfer. While plaintiff’s choice of forum is entitled to consideration, it receives less deference here than it otherwise might because the locus of operative facts occurred outside of Alabama and because of equitable concerns regarding the timing and circumstances of Carter’s filing of her Complaint in this forum. The Court has carefully considered all of these factors, duly recognizing that defendant bears the burden of establishing that the proposed transferee forum is more convenient than this one."