Legally Speaking: "The Legal System Doesn't Get Much Weirder Than This"

John G. Browning Sep. 3, 2008, 3:56am

As regular readers of Legally Speaking know, I periodically point out some of the stranger goings-on in the legal system.

Usually, I try to do this in the context of a year-end wrap-up, but this year has witnessed some of the oddest lawsuits and litigants ever to grace a courtroom. Just to prove my point, let me share with you some of the weirder characters and occurrences from recent cases around the country.

From the "Life's Little Ironies" department comes the news that the AARP is being sued – for age discrimination. Yes, the national advocacy group for the rights of older Americans has been accused of age discrimination by a 63-year-old former employee from Michigan.

Bonita Brady, who joined the AARP in 1996 as a health representative, is alleging in a Michigan federal court that she was passed over despite excellent job reviews for at least nine vacancies over the years because she was "too old." Let's see the AARP chalk this one up to a "senior moment."

Meanwhile, the "Dedication to Duty" award goes to Beaumont police officer Keith Breiner. Officer Breiner has filed a lawsuit claiming that the city of Beaumont violated his rights when it suspended him for engaging in sex acts during an undercover prostitution investigation.

During questioning, Officer Breiner admitted to engaging in a variety of sexual acts with the purported prostitutes, but claimed it was all in the line of duty.

"If you are asking if I had an orgasm, yes. It was a job, sir. I didn't have pleasure doing this. I was paid to do it," Breiner said.

Funny – I thought that was the prostitutes' line.

The "Thank Goodness There's A First Amendment" nod goes to a couple of lawyers who recently found themselves in disciplinary hot water. Arizona attorney Jeffrey Mehrens was cited by the Arizona state bar for two incidents involving prosecutors.

In one, Mehrens allegedly showed up to interview two police officers in a vehicular manslaughter case while wearing a shirt that used the "f-word" to communicate what he felt was a disadvantage to his defendant client due to police conduct.

In the other incident, Mehrens responded to one of the prosecutors who complained about his choice in attire with a letter criticizing the poor selection of magazines in her office; he also volunteered to take care of this by getting her a gift subscription "to Modern Drunkard Magazine."

While a hearing officer acknowledged that Mehrens' communication style was unusual and probably inappropriate, he ruled that it was not unethical and dismissed all charges against the Arizona defense attorney.

In Washington, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals has refused to sanction lawyer Michael H. Ditton merely on the basis of certain letters he wrote. The letters in question stemmed from a Virginia disciplinary action in which Ditton's law license was suspended for five years.

Ditton allegedly wrote to a judge whom he characterized as a "co-conspirator" in the Virginia bar's "Hitlerite" and "fascist" decision, telling the jurist "Go to hell." He unleashed the same invective in a letter to the Virginia bar's counsel, taking them to task for what he termed a "criminal and cowardly fascist racketeering conspiracy."

The D.C. appeals court somewhat indulgently said that more than just such letters would be needed before it could be convinced of Ditton's lack of fitness to practice law.

If the D.C. appellate judges believe in turning the other cheek, they've got nothing on Covington County Circuit Judge Ashley McKathan of Andalusia, Ala. Judge McKathan, who once courted controversy for wearing the Ten Commandments embroidered on his judicial robes, has become the object of a judicial ethics inquiry for an incident that took place in his courtroom in February.

According to witnesses, Judge McKathan dropped to his knees and began praying during a hearing. He then ordered all 100 people in the courtroom to join hands and pray with him. Judge McKathan defended his actions, maintaining that "whatever comes of all that, I'll continue to have peace." Look on the bright side – at least he didn't pass the collection plate.

Who wears short-shorts? Not 28-year-old Kirstie Arnold of Lancaster, Ky.; at least, not in Judge Janet Booth's courtroom.

After warning Ms. Arnold in two previous court appearances for "inappropriate dress," Judge Booth blew a gasket when Ms. Arnold showed up for an August hearing wearing short-shorts. She held her in contempt, and ordered her to serve three days in jail. No word yet on whether she had to share a cell with Daisy Duke.

You know our politically correct, every-kid-gets-a-trophy-even-if-it-says-"participant" society has gone too far when a child is punished for being too good.

That's what's happening in New Haven, Conn., with 9-year-old baseball player Jericho Scott. Apparently, Jericho throws his pitches so hard and fast (about 40 mph) that the Youth Baseball League of New Haven told his coach that he can't play anymore.

League officials announced that they're going to disband Jericho's team and redistribute the players among other teams, all because of "safety concerns" stemming from Jericho's pitching speed. The young pitcher's parents and coach say he's being unfairly penalized for excellence, and even the league's attorney admits that Jericho – as accurate as he is fast – has never beaned any opposing players.

Jericho's parents have gotten a lawyer of their own as well, and the matter might be resolved in a courtroom. If all else fails, maybe Jericho can skip Little League altogether and join the Texas Rangers; their pitching staff could use all the help it can get.

The "Look Out – They've Got a Red Pen and They're Not Afraid to Use It" award goes to Jeff Deck of Somerville, Mass., and Benjamin Herson of Virginia Beach, Va. The two self-styled "vigilante editors" were recently sentenced to probation and banned from national parks for a year after defacing a hand-painted sign at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

Mr. Deck and Mr. Herson went on a "correcting spree" this spring at various national parks, wiping out errors on government and private signs. At the Grand Canyon National Park, they used a marker to cover an incorrect apostrophe, added a correct apostrophe with Wite-Out, and added a comma.

The individuals were caught when word of their exploits were discussed on a Web site for the "Typo Eradication Advancement League." Some people have way too much time on their hands.

Finally, we came to the "Size Doesn't Matter" department. A high profile Houston defense attorney recently appealed the indecent exposure conviction of his client, a doctor, using a defense that most male defendants would prefer to avoid if possible.

The attorney, Dick DeGuerin, claimed that the doctor's previous counsel had been ineffective because he didn't raise a crucial defense – that the doctor (who had exposed himself to an undercover police officer) was too small to have actually been seen by the arresting officer. DeGuerin even had a urologist who had measured the defendant testify about the doctor's lack of endowment.

However, in an opinion that was carefully worded to avoid any double-entendres, Court of Appeals Justice Wanda Fowler rejected the argument and found that while the defendant himself may have felt inadequate, his legal representation at trial was just fine.

I guess that's one judge who feels size doesn't matter after all.

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

More News