Legally Speaking: Legal Year In Review

John G. Browning Dec. 28, 2007, 5:21pm

As 2007 mercifully draws to a close, I cannot help but reflect on the many legal milestones that distinguished this past year – pivotal court decisions, groundbreaking legislation, etc. But what about those moments in the legal realm that were just plain wacky? Don't they deserve a little recognition, too? I think so.

  • The "Don't Worry, It's Not Loaded" award goes to two deserving individuals this year. The first is Smith County Judge Joel Baker. While cleaning his gun, the Tyler jurist accidentally shot himself in the thigh in October. Let's hope he pays closer attention when wielding his gavel.

    The second winner is Mountain Home, Ark., attorney Paul Bayless. After being handed a gun by Kenton Treat of the Baxter County sheriff's office and being told it was loaded, the lawyer decided that the gun's laser sight meant it was a toy. He pulled the trigger, firing a round that went through a wall and lodged in a computer monitor. Try explaining that one to the IT Department, Mr. Bayless!

  • The "Dr. Scholls" award is presented to Houston's William Antonio Serrano. While drinking with his roommate in October, the 22-year-old Serrano and his friend got into an argument "over the suspect's smelly feet," according to the Associated Press. Upon being told that his feet had a foul odor, Mr. Serrano allegedly grabbed a knife and fatally stabbed the roommate several times. If Serrano's cellmate in jail has a similar dim view of Serrano's hygiene, he's keeping his mouth shut.

  • The "Let's Hope It's Not a Musical" award goes to actor Laurence Fishburne, who announced plans to star on Broadway next spring in a one-man show about the late Thurgood Marshall, first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Preview performances begin on March 30. Be sure not to leave your seat during the big "Brown v. Board of Education" dance number.

  • The "Getting Something Off Your Chest" award for creative civil disobedience belongs to Bara Brost (literally, "Bare Breasts"). This group of about 40 Swedish women have been protesting what they consider to be gender-biased rules on swimwear by taking off their tops at public pools throughout the Scandinavian nation.

  • The "I've Heard of Mickey Mouse Cases, But This is Ridiculous" award goes to a court in Naples, Italy. In what lawyers attribute to a "clerical error," court clerks issued witness summons to Tweety Bird, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Daisy Duck to testify in a counterfeiting case. Sounds like someone at the Naples courthouse is a little "Goofy," if you ask me.

  • The "Dr. Frankenstein, You Made Them This Way" award is presented to the American Justice School of Law in Paducah, Ky. Last month, students of this private school filed a $120 million class action lawsuit against the school's administration, claiming that officials abused their offices by delaying distribution of student loans for living expenses so that they allegedly could pocket more money from the interest.

  • The "Where There's a Will, There's a Way" award goes to two worthy recipients, including the estate of late hotel tycoon Leona Helmsley, who left the bulk of her multimillion dollar fortune to her beloved Maltese, Trouble.

    The other co-winner is the estate of the late Golda Bechal. This wealthy widow became so close to the family who ran a London Chinese restaurant that she frequented, she left them $21 million in her will. Ms. Bechal's five nephews and nieces contested the will, protesting the fortune going to Kim Sing Man and his wife Bee Lian. But citing evidence that the restaurateurs and the 88-year-old widow spent lots of time with each other and that they even vacationed together, London's High Court ruled that the will was perfectly legal. Now that's what I call a good tip!

  • The "Least Patriotic Governmental Agency" award goes to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles. Arno Herwerth, a retired NYPD sergeant who doesn't want anyone to forget about the September 11th attacks, tried to order personalized "GET OSAMA" license plates from the DMV. His request was denied, with the DMV justifying its decision with an internal policy prohibiting any license plate combination that is "obscene, lewd, lascivious, derogatory to a particular group or potentially offensive."

    Let me get this straight: Bin Laden masterminds terrorist attacks that claim thousands of American lives, our Commander in Chief publicly announces that Bin Laden is wanted dead or alive, and the DMV is worried that voicing support for bringing this murderer to justice could somehow be offensive or obscene? What's obscene is that New York's DMV commissioner still has a job after that absurd decision.

  • The "Lighten Up" award goes to New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. After contending that the First Amendment protects only "truthful, factual, non-misleading information relevant to an attorney's services" in a debate over lawyer advertising, Cuomo declared war on law firm ads that make "extreme use of humor."

    Apparently, Mr. Cuomo feels that law firm ads jokingly depicting attorneys towering over skyscrapers, or offering legal advice to space aliens might be taken too seriously by the public. Andrew, it's time to loosen up that tie – it's cutting off the blood supply to your brain.

  • The "Better Switch to Decaf" award goes to (former) Judge Robert Restaino of Nigara Falls, N.Y. Restaino was presiding over a domestic violence case and had about 70 defendants in the courtroom who were taking part in a monitoring program for domestic violence offenders, when a ringing cellphone interrupted the proceedings.

    When no one admitted to owning the phone, Restaino had bailiffs search for the device. Frustrated that all the remaining defendants denied responsibility for the phone, Restaino sent 46 people to jail (14 were unable to make bail, and were handcuffed and jailed for several hours). According to a report, Restaino only decided to release the defendants when he learned that reporters were inquiring about the mass incarceration.

    Although the judge later apologized through his lawyer for overacting, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct saw things differently and removed Restaino from office, calling his behavior "a gross deviation from the proper role of a judge." After being on the receiving end of such a ringing rebuke, something tells me Restaino won't be looking for any custom ringtones.

  • The "Wishful Thinking" award belongs to Florida hotel magnate Harris Rosen, who has threatened to file a lawsuit against hurricane expert Dr. William Gray of Colorado State University. Gray forecasted 17 named storms with nine becoming hurricanes that would hit Florida; the 2007 storm season fell short of Gray's predictions, and no hurricanes came near Florida in 2007. Rosen believes that Florida lost billions of dollars in tourism revenue as a result of Gray's outlook.

  • The "Becoming Part of the Story" prize goes to Dallas' own NBC affiliate, Channel 5, and its news reporter Lindsey Wilcox. While interviewing a robbery victim in Oak Cliff for a story, Ms. Wilcox and her crew became victims themselves. As cameras were rolling inside the victim's house, outside thieves broke into the Channel 5 news truck and made off with a laptop, DVD player, GPS navigation system, and Ms. Wilcox's purse and makeup bag. Back to you, Lindsey.

  • The "Catch-22 Award" goes to Ann and Mike Collard of Glendale, Calif. After receiving a notice from the Glendale Fire Department informing them that branches on some of their trees were too close to their home, the Collards did what most of us would. They hired a tree trimmer, who proceeded to trim the trees. On the third day of a three-day job, a city representative came by and cited the Collards for tree trimming without a permit. They were fined a whopping $347,600 for improperly pruning 13 trees. The Collards have hired a lawyer and are contesting the fine. Will they win? I'm not going to go out on a limb and say "yes."

  • The "Most Painfully Honest Obituary" award goes to the widow of the late Robert Bruce Evanick, a New Orleans attorney who passed away Dec. 4, 2007. In an obituary published by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Evanick's widow unleashed a stinging assault against her husband's law firm, whom she blamed for his massive heart attack.

    Mrs. Evanick wrote that her husband's death "should be a warning to all those who believe that they are being used by insensitive employers. He deserved better, both in life and death. Bruce had been seduced into a sedentary and high-stress lifestyle after he moved to New Orleans by the promise of 'big money' from a corporate defense law firm. Essentially, his succumbing to that seduction and his devotion to duty caused his death."

  • The "Don't Mess with Winnie" award belongs to families of five Redwood, Calif., middle school students who sued the school district after their children were disciplined for allegedly violating the school's dress code. The lawsuit arose after one of the students was punished for wearing – horrors! -- socks with the "Winnie the Pooh" cartoon character Tigger on them. The school district lost, and not only has to rescind its solid color-only clothing policy but also must pay the plaintiffs' attorneys' fees of $95,000. I guess that's the wonderful thing about Tiggers (although school officials might not agree).

  • The "Doing the Prosecutor's Work for Him" award goes to Barry Maharaj of New York. Arrested for possession of marijuana and driving while intoxicated, Maharaj received a plea deal that would have allowed dismissal of the pot charge if he stayed out of trouble for six months – although he would have to surrender his driver's license. Sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, when he turned in his license, there was more marijuana trapped in its creases, leading to a new drug charge and a ruling that the prior charge could no longer be dismissed. Way to go, Barry!

  • And last, but not least, we have the "It Couldn't Happen to a Nicer Guy" award. This year's worthy recipient is Roy Pearson, the Washington, D.C., judge who sued a dry cleaners for $54 million over an alleged lost pair of pants. Although the Korean immigrant couple who owned the dry cleaners prevailed in court, the financial toll taken by the two-year legal battle forced Soo Chung and Jin Nam Chung to sell their business in September.

    After incurring public ridicule and the scorn of the legal community, Pearson lost something else besides his dignity: his job. In October, the D.C. Commission on Selection and Tenure of Administrative Law Judges decided not to reappoint Pearson (his term had already expired), concluding that he "did not demonstrate appropriate judgment and judicial temperament." The wheels of justice may turn slowly, but at least they turn.

    Yes, 2007 featured some bizarre events in the legal world, but something tells me that 2008 will have its share of moments as well. Happy New Year!

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