Legally Speaking: Letters, We Get Letters

John G. Browning Jan. 22, 2009, 3:33am

One of the benefits of writing a newspaper column is that you know you're always going to provoke a reaction in readers, regardless of whether they make you aware of it or not.

Of those who have been moved to share their impressions, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

But you can't make everybody happy, a point that hit home with me after writing a column about restaurant critics who have been sued for writing harsh reviews.

One of the lawsuits I discussed involved a New Jersey winery owner who had sued over a decidedly uncomplimentary New York Times article. Even though I had simply mentioned the lawsuit and the supposedly disparaging comments that spawned it, I received a scathing e-mail from the winery owner himself (he'd read the article online).

Apparently, this gentleman thought I was the one casting aspersions not only on his wine, but on the fair state of New Jersey itself; he proceeded to rail about how little I knew about the Garden State.

Imagine his surprise when I wrote back to him and explained that I was born and raised in New Jersey, had attended college in the state, and in short knew what I was talking about. You might say it took the wind out of his sails.

More recently, I did a column about bizarre lawsuits that mentioned one Olga Dunina. Ms. Dunina had been found by a court to be a "vexatious litigant" after lawsuits in which she had, among other things, sought to compel PET scans of the brains of opposing lawyers, her ex-husband, and others.

Ms. Dunina herself e-mailed me in response, thanking me in fractured English for noticing her case and rambling on about how brain scans weren't that odd after all and attaching a lengthy series of strange attachments, including at least one anti-Semitic tract.

She claimed that "frontal lobe damage" was widespread in the U.S., a country where "brain injured, mentally sick people can be lawyers, attorneys, judges, presidents and destroy the life on earth." After reading e-mails like this, I have a new respect for anti-psychotic medications.

For the most part, however, the correspondence I get from readers is not only coherent but helpful.

For example, after my column about cases with unusual names, a reader informed me about one that had eluded me – the case of Death v. Graves. No, nobody died in this oddly-named 2006 lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court; it was simply a personal injury case stemming from a motorcycle/automobile collision.

And after I did a column called "If the Courthouse is Rockin', Don't Bother Knocking" about lawyers who moonlight in rock bands, I learned about an (almost) all-judge band. "Deaf Dog and the Indictments," which began in 2005, consists of four Washington, D.C., Superior Court associate judges, three magistrate judges and a psychologist who plays drums.

The band has graduated from performing at judicial gatherings and legal conferences to garnering larger crowds at well-known clubs and even the Kennedy Center. These rockin' jurists view their blend of rock, Motown, and the blues as a unique way of reaching out to the community.

Yet another recent column examined the subject of strange behavior by jurors. Not long after that article ran, it came to light that a convicted killer in St. Louis is seeking a new trial because two of the jurors on his case were allegedly having sex while sequestered.

According to Roberto Dunn (who is doing a life sentence for killing his girlfriend's mother), not only did these two jurors pursue a romantic relationship, but two of the deputies assigned to guard the jury were also having sex!

Dunn's new lawyer, assistant public defender Lisa Stroup, maintains that Dunn received ineffective assistance from his previous attorneys, who failed to question these jurors and otherwise fully explore whether the sexual relationship tainted the verdict.

With all of the Yuletide-oriented lawsuits that crowded my Christmas column, one reader helpfully pointed out one I had overlooked.

Apparently, feuding groups of professional Santas have been engaged in a running dispute. The "Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas" (AORBS) was founded in 1994, and swiftly grew to over 700 Santas (fake-bearded imposters are not admitted).

However, a schism developed in 2007, culminating in the ouster of its leader, Tim Connaghan. Connaghan went on to set up a rival organization, "The Red Suit Society" (a subsidiary of "The Kringle Group, LLC"). Yet another splinter group was formed by Ric Erwin, the "Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas" (FORBS).

The groups have disputes over domain names, alleged defamation of members on "Elf Net" (the AORBS Internet chat group), and even had a physical scuffle at a meet-and-greet at Knott's Berry Farm.

Before this feud leads to a hostile takeover of the North Pole, perhaps these professional Santas should put their differences aside and focus on something really important.

According to published reports, the downturn in the economy resulted in bookings for mall Santas being down as much as 50 percent this past holiday season. That's nothing to ho, ho, ho about.

Finally, it's always nice to hear that people consider a column to be a job well-done. After the article "For Better or Verse: Poetic Justices" recently ran, I received a very nice letter from Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin, one of the verse-writing judges discussed in the article.

He heartily agreed with what he felt was an "excellent" column, pointing out that "the jurist has the obligation to be right, but not the obligation to be dull."

My sentiments exactly.

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

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