The Judge (Robert Duvall) does tell the truth on the stand; he just can't remember a whole section of time during the evening of when he allegedly ran down Mrs. Blackwell's son on account of the side effects from his chemotherapy. On his own accord, the Judge admits that, even though he can't remember hitting Blackwell on the road that night, it doesn't mean he wouldn't have done it. He hated the victim that much. The judge gets four years in prison, but is released in less than a year. A little later, Hank and his father are on the lake fishing. While talking, the Judge passes away in the boat, but not before telling his son how proud he is of him, giving Hank some vindication and acceptance from his father, finally.
Big time Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) returns to his childhood home to help bury his mother in small town Carlinville, Indiana. He also tries to reconnect with his estranged family, especially his father, the bull-headed, authoritative father-figure that they call 'Judge' (Robert Duvall) as he has been the town's judge for 42 years, and the heavy-handed ruler of their family all their lives.
On the evening after the mom's funeral, the Judge drives to the local grocery store. The next day, the brothers discover slight damage to the front end of his car. Just as Hank is about to fly back home, Glen demands he stays and help his father: The Judge was just arrested for the possible manslaughter of a guy named Blackwell, someone who just got out of prison for murdering a girl 20 years earlier.
Hank finally convinces his father to let defend him in court.
The Judge does tell the truth on the stand; he just can't remember a whole section of time during the evening of when he allegedly ran down Mrs. Blackwell's son It turns out the Judge was going through chemotherapy for colon cancer, he didn't tell anyone, and the drugs have some amnesia-like side-affects. It looks like Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) is about to win the case for his client. But that quickly changes.
Even though the evidence against the Judge was circumstantial at best, his love for the law makes him admit that he has more to his testimony, despite the pleas from his son to stop. On his own accord, the Judge states that even though he can't remember hitting Blackwell that night, that doesn't mean he wouldn't have done it. He admitted that he felt hate for Blackwell because of his actions that evening in the grocery store and for his actions that put him in prison 20 years earlier.
This admission is enough for the jury, and the Judge is sentenced to four years in prison, but ends up getting released in less than a year. Hank and his father head to the lake to go fishing. The Judge admits to Hank that he, Hank, is his favorite lawyer, giving Hank a feeling of vindication and acceptance from his gruff father, finally. As Hank turns and casts his line, he bets his father he can catch a fish before him. After a long silence and no response, he turns to the Judge and sees him slumped over. The Judge was able to mend the major rift between them before he died. The flag over the city was flown at half-staff for his burial.