Legally Speaking: Litigating in the Twilight Zone

By John G. Browning | Apr 16, 2008

Whenever I spoke at Career Day at schools, I used to dread being asked The Question – no, not some little smart aleck asking "Aren't lawyers just parasites preying on society?" – but that equally difficult-to-answer inquiry, "Isn't it boring to be a lawyer?"

With all of the strange events going on in the legal world, it's now a lot easier for me to answer that question with a resounding "No!"

It certainly couldn't have been boring the day that David Blaisdell of Lexington, Ky., showed up in court. The 64-year-old Elvis impersonator appeared – as the King, naturally, in full Elvis regalia. He was also drunk. The judge sentenced him to 3 days in jail for contempt of court. Let's hope he knows "Jailhouse Rock."

And while name changes are usually a mundane affair for judges, some eyebrows were surely raised when Chris Garnett appeared in court for his name change request. It seems that Mr. Garnett, a 19-year-old staffer with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) wanted to protest what he considered to be inhumane practices within the poultry industry, particularly by the folks at KFC.

Garnett, who's no friend of the Colonel, had his name legally changed to No word yet on whether his friends, and family and the DMV office think that the new name is "finger-lickin' good."

My next example is straight from the "I can't make this stuff up" department. Earlier this year, 27-year-old Justin John Boudin of St. Paul, Minn., pleaded guilty to fifth-degree assault. It seems that last August, Mr. Boudin was waiting at the bus stop when he became angry with a woman and several others, and wound up striking the woman.

What sets this apart from other run of the mill criminal cases, you ask? Apparently, at the time he got so angry, Mr. Boudin was on his way somewhere – anger management class, to be exact. As Dr. Phil might say, how's that working for ya?

He may not have been on his way to anger management class, but 28-year-old Justin Vonkummer of Millerton, N.Y., still had a creative, if bizarre, excuse for speeding. After being stopped by a Connecticut state trooper, Vonkummer tried to get out of a speeding ticket by blaming it on a stray Oreo cookie.

According to Vonkummer, he was dunking an Oreo in a cup of milk when it slipped from his fingers; as he was trying to fish it out, he lost control of his car. Vonkummer was also charged with driving under a suspended license; no word yet on whether baked goods are responsible for that violation as well.

For all of you who have criticized modern art with a dismissive "My kid could do that," get ready to tell your lawyers about Joao Victor Portellinha de Oliveira. The 8-year-old boy from Sao Paulo, Brazil took a law school's entrance exam, and passed.

However, when Joao showed up for classes at the Universidade Paulista, university officials claimed they had accepted his enrollment in error and turned him away, insisting that he at least graduate from high school first.

Joao, who says his dream is to be a federal judge, told a Brazilian television network "I decided to take the test to see how I would do…It was easy. I studied a week before the test." The Brazilian Bar Association, meanwhile, says that the boy's achievement should be a warning about the low standards of some of Brazil's law schools. Gee, you think?

Lawyers tend to be cautious by nature, and in post-9/11 America, we're all a bit more leery of suspicious packages. But even these disclaimers don't entirely explain the bomb scare that occurred recently at the Fort Wayne, Ind., law firm of Haller & Colvin.

After opening a box that arrived at the office, a firm employee found a "suspicious" gift bag inside. The police bomb squad was summoned, and a robot was used to carry the package outside. When bomb squad technicians attempted to detonate the package with a water cannon, they found – a turnip.

The suspicious vegetable was wrapped in lettuce green tissue paper, inside a plastic sandwich bag. I can just see parents all across America now: "If you don't eat your vegetables, then the terrorists win."

We've all heard of defective products, including ones that can kill you. But have you ever had a product tell you in advance that it would kill you?

Melissa Bowman of Lithia, Fla., claims that she bought her 2-year-old son James an "Elmo Knows Your Name" doll. An hour after replacing its batteries, however, the colorful Sesame Street character began uttering something other than songs, the alphabet, or favorite colors in its famous sing-song voice: it began saying "Kill James." As a result, the malfunctioning, death threat-spouting doll is being kept away from little James Bowman.

Fisher-Price, the toy manufacturer, has said it will issue the Bowmans a voucher for a replacement doll, examine the Elmo model for the source of the glitch, and check on whether other Elmos have the same problem. Let's hope this doesn't lead to the new doll, "Class Action Elmo."

Speaking of products, the patent lawyers with whom I've practiced have been involved in obtaining patents on everything from barbecue utensils to complicated medical devices. A former big league baseball player, however, is patenting an athletic cup that he says is light years ahead of the competition. The secret, according to inventor Mark Littell, is the, shall we say, anatomical correctness of the "Nutty Buddy."

To help encourage men and boys to embrace the new and differently designed cup, Littell has given the cups more macho names: "Hammer," "Boss," "Hog," and in case you're really feeling inadequate, the "Mongo."

I may have gone to law school rather than medical school but even my limited grasp of anatomy tells me that the human ankle exists. Don't tell that to the Texas Board of Podiatric Medical Examiners and its lawyers, however.

An ongoing legal battle has been raging between the governing body of podiatry and the Texas Medical Association over whose turf includes treatment of the ankle; orthopedic surgeons claim it, while the Board of Podiatric Medical Examiners defines the ankle as part of the foot and therefore within the podiatrist's purview. A recent decision by the Austin Court of Appeals sided with the orthopedists, however, and said that the ankle does in fact exist.

Now there's a relief; for a while there I thought we'd have judges singing "The foot bone's connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone's connected to the …" well, you get the idea.

Finally, from the world of political correctness run amok comes the strange case of Keith Sampson, an employee of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Sampson does janitorial work for the campus facility services, is a few credits shy of a degree in communications studies, and is an avid reader who brings books into the break room to read when he's off the clock.

Last year, he was reading the book "Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan," by Todd Tucker. The book, which has been critically well received, discusses how Notre Dame students confronted the Ku Klux Klan and their anti-Catholic prejudice in a May 1924 riot.

If anything, the book is a resounding indictment of the Klan and a historically important work. But that didn't prevent Sampson from being the victim of a Kafkaesque rush to judgment by an administration that took political correctness to ridiculous extremes.

First, a shop steward told Sampson that bringing a book about the KKK to work was like bringing pornography. Next, a co-worker made similar comments. With both individuals, Sampson tried to explain what the book was really about and the position it took, but neither would listen.

Next, he was notified by the school's Affirmative Action Office (AAO) that a racial harassment complaint had been filed against him. Once again, Sampson tried to explain the book, only to have his words fall – once again – on deaf ears.

Then, despite not being given a hearing and the chance to defend himself, Sampson received a Nov. 25, 2007, letter from the AAO telling him that it had completed its investigation.

The letter admonished Sampson for his "disdain and insensitivity," as well as his "extremely poor judgment by openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject in the presence of your Black coworkers." The AAO ordered Sampson to refrain from reading the book, and to sit apart from his coworkers.

After the matter was publicized by First Amendment advocates and the AAO's obvious unfamiliarity with the book became known, the complaint against Sampson was quietly dismissed.

However, Sampson never received an apology for being unfairly labeled a racist. In its misguided quest to place political correctness above all, IUPUI's administration made sure that truth was the first casualty.

Like the other bizarre incidents that inexplicably found their way into our legal system, the ludicrous accusations against Keith Sampson show that reality really is stranger than fiction.

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

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