Legally Speaking: Lawpocalypse Now (Part Two)

John G. Browning Oct. 19, 2010, 10:37am

Last week, I shared some examples of cases from the legal system that might just be signs that the world is coming to an end.

But it's not just the people filing bizarre lawsuits or making weird claims that leads me to that conclusion. In fact, some of the most surprising and strange legal twists and turns come from the lawyers and judges themselves.

If you don't believe me, just consider British lawyer Nick Freeman. Freeman is known in the U.K. media as "Mr. Loophole" for being able to split legal hairs and use technicalities in successfully defending celebrity clients like David Beckham from driving offenses.

But when Freeman's 19-year-old daughter Sophie was caught doing 63 mph in a 50 mph zone, the lawyer-to-the-stars decided she needed to learn a lesson, so he refused to get her off the speeding charge.

"Sophie had to understand the consequences of breaking the law," Freeman said.

A lawyer taking a moral stand in the name of good parenting? Alert the media.

Speaking of unexpected behavior from lawyers, how about Alice Lingo? The 2007 Fordham University law graduate was laid off from her $160,000 a year job at a large New York law firm.

In one of the worst legal markets in years, she sent out hundreds of resumes and applied for legal position after legal position, to no avail. Needing to make her student loan payments, Lingo unsuccessfully applied for 15 waitress openings, 30 babysitter jobs and even a ticket-taker position in Times Square.

Frustrated, she decided to start her own business as a housekeeper. She papered the upper West Side with flyers advertising her new gig, which asked "Haven't you always wanted to see a lawyer clean a toilet?"

The 29-year-old "lawyer turned cleaning lady" says she's not afraid of hard work. A lawyer willing to do honest, manual labor – some might be tempted to say they've seen everything now.

As if that's not enough of a sign of a world turned upside down, how about a lawyer facing disciplinary charges for being . . . too sarcastic?

Laura Morask has been a prosecutor in Cook County, Ill., since 1987, but she's facing an ethics complaint over making sarcastic closing arguments, as well as allegedly lying about a previous disciplinary probe.

Among other statements, the complaint alleges that Morask sarcastically referred to a woman accused of killing her daughter as "Mother Teresa" and "June Cleaver," and in another trial used sarcasm in support of a rape victim who had difficulty identifying the defendant.

If we start punishing lawyers for using sarcasm, we may run out of lawyers.

Of course, judges can be just as guilty of surprising or bizarre behavior – and I don't just mean Texas judge Kevin Madison, who drew national attention recently for banning cowboy boots from his courtroom (the ban was quickly rescinded).

Fifty-eight-year-old Judge Isaac Stoltzfus of Lancaster County, Penn., was recently charged with disorderly conduct.

His alleged crime? Going up to unsuspecting women and handing them acorns with condoms hidden inside them. The bizarre behavior occurred in the rather aptly-named city of Intercourse, Penn.

Turning to more strange judicial behavior, how would you react if you heard a judge say, "I find myself . . . not guilty?"

Odd as it may sound, that's the basic gist of the story of Jackson County, Mich., District Judge James M. Justin. According to court records, Judge Justin dismissed nine traffic cases against himself and his wife (four were his, five were hers).

Interestingly, the records show that the tickets were "dismissed after explanation" – I suppose that Judge Justin found Judge Justin's explanations very convincing.

Justin, a judge since 1977, was suspended in July by the Michigan Supreme Court while the state's Judicial Tenure Commission investigates allegations of misconduct that have been made against him in connection with the alleged "fixing" of hundreds of traffic tickets – not just those involving him and his wife.

Justin's attorney acknowledges that the jurist "shouldn't have done it," but feels that Justin shouldn't be removed from office. Elwood Brown, a judge who chairs the State Bar of Michigan's Committee on Judicial Ethics, says Justin's behavior is not only an ethical issue, but a violation of court rules "that require a judge to recuse himself."

Finally, how would you feel if you went to court and it felt like a reality TV show instead?

San Diego Judge DeAnn Salcido is accused in an ethics complaint of turning her courtroom into an audition stage for a TV show. According to a complaint before California's Commission on Judicial Performance, the judge taped court proceedings and sent the video to an entertainment lawyer, promoting herself for a television stint.

She also allowed a producer to film her court proceedings for an entire day, supposedly setting "my more interesting defendants and those with substance abuse issues" for the day of filming.

Judge Salcido is accused, among other things, of:

Asking courtroom spectators for a "woo, woo, woo" after learning a defendant tested positive for marijuana;
Telling a defendant that "they might like your smile in jail," and warning another defendant placed on probation not to commit another crime because "you will definitely be screwed and we don't offer Vaseline for that;" and
Asking a defendant who claimed to hear voices to tell her if they said "Hurt the judge, hurt the judge."

Judge Salcido defended what she calls her "use of humor and a tough love approach," despite criticism from those who accuse her of channeling her inner "Judge Judy."

Judges who hand out condom-filled acorns, judges who acquit themselves and judges who'd rather be TV stars ... talk about disorder in the court!

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