Legally Speaking: Disorder in the court?

John G. Browning Mar. 4, 2008, 3:37pm

Having practiced law for over 18 years, I thought I'd seen it all until the evening news recently played a piece of courtroom video from a criminal trial in Georgetown, Ky.

The video – no doubt immortalized on YouTube by now – depicts a disgruntled criminal defendant complaining to the judge about how ineffective his public defender has been. Growing increasingly agitated, the defendant suddenly lunges forward and begins punching the public defender repeatedly before being restrained by bailiffs.

After playing the beatdown over and over again (a nod to our lawyer-bashing society), the news report discussed the aftermath of the assault. The public defender, now sporting two black eyes, says he doesn't blame the defendant. And the defendant (currently facing a charge it will really be hard to deny) seems unrepentant, having gotten his wish for a different lawyer, albeit through rather unconventional means.

That defendant might not have wanted to tangle with Kathy Brewer-Rentas, a 49-year-old commercial litigator with a law firm in Hollywood, Fla. Ms. Rentas was recently charged with assault for shaking a federal prosecutor's hand so hard, authorities say, that it injured the prosecutor's shoulder.

Apparently, after attending a court hearing for her husband Anthony (who was accused and later sentenced for violating the terms of his probation in a cocaine distribution case), Ms. Rentas asked to shake hands with Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Keene. According to deputy U.S. Marshal Robert Kremenik Jr., Rentas "made an upward, then a quick downward motion and pulled Keene toward the ground moving her forward, almost causing Keene to fall to the ground." Kremenik claims the prosecutor's arm "was nearly ripped out of its socket," and a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Fort Lauderdale contends that this is "something that we will take very seriously and prosecute vigorously."

Ms. Rentas has denied that she ever meant to hurt Keene, and is free on $100,000 bail after spending the night in jail. She faces up to a year in prison if convicted (not to mention possible disciplinary action by the Florida bar), and has been ordered to stay away from Keene and undergo a psychological evaluation. And to think I'd always been taught to look someone in the eye and give him a firm handshake.

Unexpected events seem to be the order of the day in courtrooms around the country. Imagine the surprise of some of the people going about their daily business in St. Johnsbury, Vt., recently when they were hauled into the courtroom of Judge Harold Eaton Jr. by uniformed deputies.

It seems Judge Eaton was disappointed when a 34-person pool of potential jurors for a sex crime case was reduced to only 20 people. To swell their ranks, the judge sent his deputies in search of the average man on the street – literally. Caledonia County Sheriff Michael Bergeron and his deputies stopped people on the sidewalk and asked if they lived in the county. Those who answered in the affirmative and who were 18 years or older were then handed a summons to report to the courthouse. Faced with an alarming rate of "no-shows" for jury duty, a number of judges around the country have resorted to similar measures.

Sometimes judges are on the receiving end of a surprise. Certainly Alameda, Calif., Judge Frank Roesch was when artist Kristin Sue Lucas filed pleadings in his court on Sept. 22, 2007, to change her name. Ms. Lucas (whose work combines theatrical performance, narrative and new media) you see, wanted to change her name to…Kristin Sue Lucas.

Ms. Lucas, who did the name "change" as part of a six-part work entitled "Refresh" (part of an exhibit that was on display through March 1 at Dallas' And/Or Gallery), in which she makes a statement about modern technology by "refreshing" herself as though she were a Web site page. Although the judge was somewhat bewildered by the unusual request (noting that "The court is not in the business of humor"), he relented on Oct. 5, 2007.

So now, Kristin Sue Lucas has legally become – ta da! –Kristin Sue Lucas. I may never understand modern art.

Here's one for the hopeless romantics out there. Nothing brings out the romantic meaning of Valentine's Day quite like – a divorce lawyer? As part of a Valentine's Day promotion by Charleston, W.V., radio station WKLC-FM (Rock 105), the giveaways went beyond the usual flowers, candy, and stuffed animals – they also gave away a free divorce to one "lucky" listener.

Acknowledging the "darker" part of Valentine's Day, "where maybe you despise your spouse and resent the entire day," program director Jay Nunley announced that the classic rock station would draw a winner of a free divorce handled by Charleston attorney Rusty Webb.

If you thought listeners would be outraged by giving away a divorce on the very holiday that celebrates romance, think again: the station reported "dozens of phone calls" and roughly 30 entries for the contest within just a few hours of the promotion's announcement.

Finally, most people are happy when they get a little something extra with their fast food meal – a larger order of fries, for example, or another toy in the Happy Meal. But an arbitration clause?

A Whataburger franchise in Kilgore, Texas, has posted a sign at every public entrance to the restaurant, putting guests on notice that by simply coming in they are giving up their 7th Amendment right to sue the company for any reason.

The signs say "By entering these premises you hereby agree to refer any and all disputes or claims of any kind whatsoever, which arise from the products, services or premises, by way of binding arbitration not litigation. No suit or action may be filed in any state or federal court. Any arbitration shall be governed by the FEDERAL ARBITRATION ACT, and administered by the American Mediation Association."

"The American Mediation Association," by the way, is apparently comprised of three lawyers in Dallas hired by the Whataburger.

Will such an arbitration notice be enforceable? Probably not, but I wouldn't mind hearing the person working the drive-through tell a customer "Pull forward to the next window to talk to the arbitrator."

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