Legally Speaking: The Justies � Part II

John G. Browning Jul. 1, 2008, 12:44pm

In last week's column, we brought you the first installment of the Justies, our own attempt to recognize some of the most bizarre and/or amusing stories coming out of the legal system.

Continuing in that vein, we bring you the Justie for "Best School Pride in a Lawsuit." U.S. District Judge James R. Nowlin of the Western District of Texas is a proud Texas Longhorn � and his office just happens to be in Austin.

Small wonder, then, that this May, when a dispute between the parties in a lawsuit against Wal-Mart couldn't agree on whether to take the deposition of Wal-Mart's corporate representative in San Antonio, Texas, or at the retail giant's corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., Judge Nowlin couldn't resist giving his ruling a certain burnt orange tint.

Judge Nowlin wrote that it was understandable that the Arkansas-based representative would be hesitant to enter Texas "where the legendary Texas Longhorns have wrought havoc on the Arkansas Razorbacks with an impressive 55-21 all-time series record."

The judge did note that the Razorbacks, "who disgracefully retreated from the Southwest Conference to the gentler pastures of the Southeastern Conference," could have "learned a lesson about stamina and perseverance in the face of battle by visiting the Alamo in San Antonio."

He also understood how the Texas plaintiffs might feel trepidation about taking the deposition in Arkansas, where "many residents�are still seeking retribution for the 'Game of the Century' in which James Street and Darrell Royal stunned the Razorbacks by winning the 1969 National Championship."

To assuage the concerns of both sides, Judge Nowlin ordered the deposition to take place in Texarkana, where each party could remain on his or her respective side of the state line. Hook 'em, judge!

The Justie for "Worst School Pride" goes to the legal team for Duke University. When Duke backed out of a four-game football game contract with the University of Louisville after only one game (a humiliating 40-3 loss to Louisville in 2002), lawyers for Louisville sued for $450,000 for the breach.

The contract in question called for a penalty of $150,000 per game if a date with a "team of similar stature" could not be arranged. Duke's lawyers argued that the Blue Devils � who have an abysmal 6-45 record over the last five seasons � were so bad that virtually any team in the NCAA would've been a suitable replacement.

The judge agreed with them, observing that the threshold "could not be any lower" and that the Duke legal team's candor was "more attributable to good legal strategy than to institutional modesty."

The "Strange Bedfellows" Justie goes to Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Johnson of Las Vegas, Nev. It seems that after Rick Rizzolo, former owner of famed Las Vegas strip club The Crazy Horse Too, pled guilty to tax evasion charges in 2006, and failed to negotiate a sale of the club as part of his plea deal, the federal government seized the exotic dancing establishment.

Although the strip club has been closed since the feds took it over in August 2007, they recently went to court to oppose the city of Las Vegas' decision to rescind the Crazy Horse's special use permits that allow exotic dancing and the serving of alcohol. According to AUSA Johnson, the value of the club would plummet from an estimated $32-$35 million to around $8-$10 million without the special use permits.

While Las Vegas city attorney Bill Henry argued that the federal government shouldn't be in the business of operating strip clubs, attorney Johnson argued that the special use permits have been a selling point during negotiations to sell the gentlemen's club to interested parties. However this works out, let's just hope they don't pay the sales price in crumpled up, sweaty singles.

The "Identity Crisis" Justie goes to former Fresno prosecutor David Evan Jones. Once a rising star in the prosecutor's office with judicial aspirations, Jones' 6-year-long relationship with mistress Michelle Ramos ended when he refused to divorce his wife.

At that point, according to charges filed against Jones, the spurned ex-prosecutor allegedly stole the identity of his former girlfriend, using her personal information to create fake online profiles of Ms. Ramos and to post sexually explicit messages on two Web sites in an effort to entice men to contact her for sex. The harassment allegedly went on for over a year, until about October 2007.

Although he initially pled not guilty to several felony charges (including stalking), Jones pled guilty this June to false impersonation, saying that he was "extremely embarrassed" by his conduct and wanted to "bring an end to any further distress" to Ms. Ramos. The California State Bar will review the matter and decide whether or not to revoke Jones' law license.

The "Dubious Trial Aid" Justie goes to purported New York psychic Laura Day. According to Newsweek magazine, Ms. Day's services are in high demand from movie producers, executives, and even attorneys for a flat rate of $10,000 per month.

According to one Manhattan attorney who serves as "special counsel" to several large law firms, he's used Day's "intuition" to help select juries and anticipate arguments from opposing counsel.

Although he didn't want to be publicly identified, the lawyer maintains that using the psychic "saves me thousands of minutes on my cell phone." I just wonder how he describes it on the bill to his client.

Speaking of legal bills, the "Best Reason to Pay Your Legal Bills" Justie goes to Jonathan Skero here in Texas. Although one can't be put in prison for failing to pay a debt, the 9th District Court of Appeals held earlier this year that attorney's fees are not merely debts, but are "a means of enforcing a legal duty in which the public has an interest."

The appellate court upheld a trial judge's contempt ruling against Mr. Skero, who had been sentenced to 30 days in jail for failing to pay $1,750 in attorney's fees as required by a family violence protective order.

The "Make Up Your Mind, Already" Justie goes to a man in Albuquerque, N.M., who is currently known as Variable.

I say "currently," because Variable has a habit of filing for legal name changes. His previous legal name (before changing it in 2004) was � I'm not making this up � Snaphappy Fishsuit Mokligon; not surprisingly, that wasn't his original given name either.

But after tiring of the name "Variable" recently, this fickle gentleman ran afoul of the law. He petitioned Bernalillo County State District Judge Jan Nash to change his name from Variable to a phrase containing a four letter obscenity, "F--- Censorship."

Judge Nash rejected his request, ruling that the proposed change was "obscene, offensive and would not comport with common decency." In June a New Mexico appeals court agreed with Judge Nash, and upheld her denial of the name change. I've got a name for this guy � how about "Indecisive Pottymouth?"

Finally, we come to the "Attention Deficit Disorder" Justie, which we're proud to bestow on the Sydney, Australia, jury empanelled for a recent high profile drug crimes trial. The trial was into its third month, with 105 witnesses (including 20 policeman) having testified, when district Judge Peter Zahra was forced to declare a mistrial.

The reason? After one witness noticed something odd from the witness stand (jurors were taking notes vertically rather than horizontally) the jury forewoman and four other jury members admitted that they had been playing the popular puzzle game Sudoku (which involves completing a grid of numbers in the correct sequence) to stave off boredom.

Ironically, the judge had earlier commended the jury for their copious note taking, and lawyer Robyn Hakelis said "We actually all thought they were quite a diligent jury."

One of the jurors defended her actions, saying "some of the evidence is rather drawn out, and I find it difficult to maintain my attention the whole time."

Although the aborted trial cost Australian taxpayers over a million dollars (Australian, which equates to about $945,000 U.S.), there will be no legal repercussions for the easily distracted jurors.

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Gordon & Rees, LLP. He may be contacted at:

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