John G. Browning Dec. 30, 2013, 11:21am

As we bid farewell to 2013, the odd moments and unusual characters that have been livening up the legal system all year long show no signs of slowing down.

For example, the concerns over liability that threaten to turn us into a “nanny state” are even worse overseas.  Imagine going to see your local church’s Nativity play or Christmas pageant, only to be greeted by the sight of Mary, mother of Jesus, wearing a crash helmet!

That’s what happened when the health and safety authorities in Neath (a small town in South Wales) got involved with the children’s Nativity play at a local church.  Because of safety rules over the use of live animals, the church was ordered to have the 8-year-old girl playing Mary wear a helmet as she rode into “Bethlehem” on a donkey.

The open-air Nativity play is being held to raise money for disaster relief efforts in the Philippines.  At least the Filipinos were spared the onslaught of overzealous lawyers and ordinances.

Honesty is a good thing but sometimes it can raise a few eyebrows.  Eighty-three-year-old Doris Payne is a convicted jewel thief, and in her latest brush with the law she is accused of stealing a $22,500 ring while posing as a customer at a California jewelry store.

Getting ready for a bond hearing recently in Riverside County, Calif., Payne filled out some court paperwork listing her occupation as—you guessed it—“jewelry thief.” Not surprisingly, Superior Court Judge Richard Erwood declined to release the octogenarian on bail.

And in DeKalb County, Ga., court officials are scrambling to fix an error that makes its jury service look like it’s remained unchanged since the days of the antebellum South.  A potential juror filling out an online jury form tried to list her occupation in sales, but after typing the letter “s,” the resulting drop-down menu listed “slave” as a possible occupation (there are plenty of days when many of us might feel like that’s an accurate response).

Red-faced court officials acted quickly to remove the word from the list that courts have been using for the past 13 years (“quickly,” being a relative term, considering the 150 years that have passed since the Emancipation Proclamation).

And in another case of your tax dollars hard at work, Judge Clark Allen Peterson’s hobby has ignited a firestorm of controversy in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  It seems like Judge Peterson is an avid online gamer who frequently posts comments on message boards and other online forums—during business hours—under his own name and featuring his online persona: Orcus, Demon Lord of the Undead.

Those who encounter Judge Peterson in the courtroom, of course, don’t get to see him as a demon with horns, wings and a beard.  That hasn’t stopped several litigants from planning to file complaints with the Idaho Judicial Council; one probate litigant says “We don’t know if he’s a demon lord in the courtroom or if he’s Judge Peterson in the courtroom.”

I feel your pain—I’ve been in front of several judges where the distinction between “demon lord” and “jurist” was not that clear.

Judge Peterson has responded to the criticism, saying “I regret if anyone viewed my postings regarding one of my hobbies as not being up to the standards of the Idaho Judiciary.  I continue to believe that my hobby activity does not violate any of the canons of judicial conduct, but the perception of the public and of the litigants who appear before me is of paramount importance to me.”

I always thought that slipping on banana peels only occurred in cartoons and old vaudeville routines.  Maurice Owens of Washington, D.C., wants people to believe it happens in real life too—he’s suing the Metro Transit for $15,000, claiming he slipped on a banana peel while getting off an elevator at a Metro station, injuring his hip and leg.

But a picture is worth a thousand words, and the Metro Transit authorities maintain that a surveillance video shows Owens looking around before tossing a banana peel behind him and then thrusting himself forward and “falling” to the ground. The camera footage also purportedly shows that before Owens entered the elevator, there was no banana peel on the floor.

Seriously, Maurice?  A banana peel is the best you’ve got?  Where’s the Acme Dynamite plunger, the falling anvil or piano, or Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner?  You’ve got to get more creative than that; even the average NBA player can “flop” better than that.

And how about another grandstanding ploy that didn’t quite work out—this time by a lawyer.  Denver, Colo., lawyer Linda Marie Lee believed that her client, the defendant in a juvenile theft case, had been misidentified.  So, she arranged for a friend of the client to sit next to her at counsel’s table, while the real defendant found a seat in the back of the courtroom.  Then, during opening statements, Lee pointed to the person seated next to her, saying “My client is innocent.”

Unfortunately for Lee and her client, the victim correctly identified the defendant sitting in the gallery.  The trial judge was not amused, and granted a new trial based on Lee’s fraud upon the court before finding Lee in contempt.  The Colorado Supreme Court has since suspended Ms. Lee for a year and a day for her misconduct.

More News