Legally Speaking: Strange Times in the Justice System

John G. Browning Mar. 25, 2009, 9:14am

Things are getting weirder and weirder out there in our legal system. If you don't believe me, just consider some of the following strange episodes that have made news recently:

Blood is Thicker Than Water, But Apparently No Substitute for Ink

On March 10, California's Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled that a contract written in blood between two Korean businessmen was unenforceable.

It seems that back in October 2004, Jinsoo Kim and Stephen Son were out drinking at a sushi restaurant when Son chose a rather unorthodox way to memorialize his promise to repay Kim approximately $170,000 that the other man had lost investing in Son's business ventures.

Son asked a waiter for a safety pin, pricked his finger, and wrote his agreement to repay Kim in blood on a piece of paper. Kim sued Son in 2006 to collect, and asked the court to consider the blood oath as enforceable. Both the trial court and the appellate court said Kim's claims were invalid.

Now, if only all those people in the movies who made a pact with the Devil knew that signing in blood wasn't so ironclad after all…

Times Are Tough All Over, Part One

The economic meltdown has had a ripple effect on our nation's courthouses.

In Morrow County, Ohio, Judge Lee McClelland has declared that the court will accept no new filings starting March 16 – because it doesn't have enough paper!

According to the judge, the court is so strapped for cash that it only has enough office supplies and paper to cover cases that are currently pending. McClelland says unless litigants with new cases "want to provide paper, we can't process anything."

Although several agencies have already agreed to bring their own paper, the county Sheriff's Department isn't one of them.

"If we make arrests or issue citations, we're taking them to court. Whether the court accepts them, I guess that's something they're going to have to deal with," said Sheriff Steven Brenneman.

Things Are Tough All Over, Part Two

Don't expect a jury of your peers in New Hampshire; in fact, don't count on a jury at all – the state can't afford it.

In February, Gov. John Lynch requested cost-cutting in New Hampshire's court system to help close a $100 million revenue gap. One of the moves was to postpone both civil and criminal jury trials for at least 30 days, and eight of New Hampshire's 10 counties will do so on a staggered basis until May 1, in an effort to trim the judicial system's annual budget of $71.8 million.

The move has been greeted with widespread criticism from litigants as well as attorneys, who have cautioned that "justice delayed" may very well mean "justice denied." Interestingly, of the 17 states that have already slashed court budgets, only New Hampshire is curbing jury trials.

Your Tax Dollars At Work, Part One

In state legislatures across the county, you'd expect that in these difficult times, elected lawmakers would have their hands full dealing with weighty issues. But then, you haven't met West Virginia Rep. Jeff Eldridge. Eldridge introduced House Bill 2918, which seeks to ban the sale of Barbie dolls.

Why? Because according to Eldridge's bill, such dolls "promote or influence girls to place an undue importance on physical beauty to the detriment of their intellectual and emotional development."

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and many legislators were quick to express their opposition to the "Barbie bill," some of them even bringing dolls with them to display on their desks during the session.

One of them, Rep. Troy Andes, lamented that, "West Virginia is now the laughingstock of the nation. Instead of talking about banning the sale of Barbie dolls, legislators should be focused on creating jobs and reforming our state's broken business climate."

At least Rep. Andes seems to have his priorities in order; after all, Barbie's Dream House never went into foreclosure.

Your Tax Dollars At Work, Part Two

During a recent debate in the Florida House of Representatives over a bill to outlaw bestiality, State Sen. Larcenia (what a great name for a politician!) Bullard expressed alarm that animal husbandry was listed among the exceptions.

Bullard said "People are taking these animals as their husbands? What's husbandry?"

As other senators stifled their laughter, Sen. Charlie Dean calmly explained that the term referred to caring for and raising animals. Bullard still didn't get it, replying "So that maybe was the reason the lady was so upset about that monkey?" (referring to the Connecticut incident in which a pet chimpanzee went on a rampage and was shot).

Even scarier than the fact that this lady is entrusted with lawmaking is the fact that she is a former schoolteacher.

Your Tax Dollars At Work, Part Three

Apparently, things are slow in the Kentucky legislature as well – so slow, that lawmakers felt it necessary to make sure that recent legislation governing first-responders had a little something extra in it. The something extra is an oath that first responders would have to swear to, essentially, that they had never fought in a duel.

While it seems pretty silly in 2009 to be worried about people fighting duels, this anti-dueling oath is already enshrined in the Kentucky Constitution. Section 228 requires all officers of the state (and all members of the bar) to take an oath swearing that they "have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State nor out of it, nor have they sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons."

If I lived in Kentucky, I'd feel safer already.

A "D'oh" Moment in Harris County

In Houston, like most major cities, the bailiffs assigned to courts are sheriff's deputies. But it looks like the sheriff's department may want to add some more stringent job requirements – like the ability to count to 13, for instance.

In February, State District Judge Mark Kent Ellis was forced to declare a mistrial in a murder case when everyone realized – just after a guilty verdict was returned – that sitting in the jury box were not 12 good citizens, but 13.

It seems the bailiff, a substitute, had miscounted and when the 13th juror previously tried to leave, the bailiff informed her that she needed to fill out some paperwork first but then neglected to bring it to her.

Because state law requires a criminal jury to have 12 people on it, and to be free from outside influences (a 13th juror would be considered an outside influence), Judge Ellis had no choice but to declare a mistrial, meaning the state will incur more expense and the victim's family will have to re-live the experience all over again.

"In 23 years I've never seen anything like this," the judge said. "The jurors all seemed pretty upset, but there's no way to unring that bell."

Judge Ellis had some choice words for the bailiff, too. "I told him I never want to see him in my courtroom again," Ellis stated.

A Tragic Mistake

As long as Harris County bailiffs are in need of remedial arithmetic, we might as well sign up Oklahoma state correctional officers for remedial reading classes.

In March, 23-year-old Paul Duran Jr., an inmate at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, was placed in a cell with 32-year-old Jessie James Dalton.

There was just one problem: Dalton was serving a life sentence for the March 2002 shooting of Billy Ray Wayne, and Duran was an accomplice who had testified against him in exchange for a lesser charge and shorter sentence. Dalton beat Duran to death within 15 minutes of the young man being put in his cell.

Under Corrections Department rules, because Duran had testified against Dalton, the two were ineligible to share a cell. A spokesman for the department says this information is normally listed in a prisoner's file and checked by guards before assigning someone a new cellmate.

The district attorney is considering whether or not to file charges, and I'm sure Oklahoma's Corrections Department can expect a wrongful death lawsuit in the near future.

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

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