Some of the ways in which lawyers do good for the community are geared toward hope for a better future—such as raising money for charity, mentoring others, or building houses with Habitat for Humanity.But for some lawyers, building a better future means righting some of the wrongs of the past.For these attorneys, this entails not just reminding others of some historically-overlooked injustices, but also taking steps to remedy (albeit belatedly) those injustices.While the legal profession itself has made great strides toward inclusiveness, its past is marked by racial injustice and discriminatory policies that are shocking to today’s lawyers.
One of these efforts to right a 124 year-old wrong is being led by University of California-Davis law professor Gabriel “Jack” Chin and a group of his students, who have submitted an application to practice law to the State Bar of California on behalf of Hong Yeng Chang, who was denied a law license back in 1890 solely on racial grounds.Chang graduated from Yale University and Columbia Law School in 1886.Although he was initially denied the chance to sit for the New York bar exam, a special act of the state legislature gave him that opportunity.He passed, becoming the first Chinese immigrant to become an American lawyer.In 1890, Chang moved to California with the intention of starting a law practice that would represent the booming Chinese immigrant community in San Francisco.But the California Supreme Court denied his application, pointing to a federal law—the Chinese Exclusion Act—that barred Chinese from becoming U.S. citizens, as well as a California law banning noncitizens from practicing law. The court’s decision in Chang’s case is still studied today in law schools as an example of 19th century bigotry.In 1943, Congress finally repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and in recent years both the Senate and the House of Representatives have issued apologies for the discriminating effects of that act and similar laws.In 1972, the California Supreme Court allowed noncitizens to earn licenses to practice in the state.Chang himself, though denied admission to the California bar, went on to a distinguished career in banking and diplomacy.
While there is no precedent in California for granting a posthumous law license, there have been similar efforts at redressing past discrimination.In March 2001, the Washington State Supreme Court posthumously admitted Takuji Yamashita, who graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 1902, and passed the bar exam, but was denied admission to the bar.Like California, Washington’s supreme court and attorney general at the time relied on federal law excluding Asians from becoming citizens, and on the prerequisite of citizenship to be a member of the bar.Yamashita appealed to the state’s highest court, arguing that this denial was an affront to the values of “the most enlightened and liberty-loving nation of them all,” but the state’s attorneys derided Yamashita’s “worn out Star Spangled Banner orations.”
After the state won, Yamashita faded for a time into obscurity, becoming a hotel owner and strawberry farmer in Kitsap County, Washington.But he came roaring back in 1922 with a new crusade, this time against the state’s Alien Land Law, which prohibited “ineligible aliens” (primarily Asians) from owning land.Yamashita took his fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but unfortunately fared no better than he had with the Washington Supreme Court in 1902.Not until 1952 would Congress permit Japanese immigrants to become U.S. citizens, and it wasn’t until 1965 that Congress treated Asian immigrants on an equal footing with their European counterparts.Washington state finally repealed the Alien Land Law in 1966 (on the fourth try), and it took until 1973 for the U.S. Supreme Court to grant legal aliens the right to practice law in all states.Yamashita’s failed quests, first for a law license and then for the right to own land, became little more than dusty legal footnotes.Like other Japanese-Americans, he was confined to internment camps during World War II.He returned to Japan for what would be the last two years of his life, dying there in 1959 at the age of 84.
In the mid-1990s, several historians and descendants of Yamashita began to piece together his incredible story and to lobby the state of Washington to address the injustices of the past.The ceremony marking his posthumous admission was a focal point of the University of Washington Law School’s centennial, and Yamashita was belatedly honored by then-Governor Gary Locke, Attorney General Christine Gregoire, and other dignitaries with 17 of Yamashita’s descendants from Japan in attendance.Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander observed that “It’s impossible to undo what happened to Mr. Yamashita, but it’s important for us to make a statement that these things were wrong.It’s a step toward healing.”
Another precedent for admitting Chang comes from Pennsylvania.In 2010, the Pennsylvania Bar set right its own historical injustice 163 years after denying African-American George B. Vashon admission to the bar.Vashon, born a free man in Pennsylvania in 1824, became the first African-American to receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oberlin College.He then “read the law” under the tutelage of Judge Walter Forward (who would later become U.S. Secretary of the Treasury), and made application to practice law in Allegheny County in 1847.But Vashon was denied admittance on the basis of his “Negro descent.”Vashon then moved to New York, where he became the first African-American lawyer in that state.While he would go on to practice law in Syracuse and become best known as a professor (Vashon was Howard University’s first professor), Vashon never forgot being snubbed in Pennsylvania.After being admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1867, Vashon again sought admission from Allegheny County the next year, only to be denied yet again.
After reading an article about Vashon’s life, Pittsburgh attorney Wendell Freeland was struck by the injustice.In January 2010, along with several of Vashon’s descendants, Freeland and his co-counsel Leslie Carter filed a petition to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, seeking a declaration that Vashon was qualified to be admitted to the bar.The court agreed, and in a ceremony on October 20, 2010, George B. Vashon was at last admitted to the Pennsylvania bar.His great-grandson Nolan N. Atkinson, Jr., who himself is a lawyer with a large national firm, said of the belated recognition, “[It] both acknowledges Mr. Vashon’s many accomplishments in law, scholarship, education, and justice—often in the face of great resistance—and finally redresses an historical injustice.”
In the case of Hong Yeng Chang, California’s Committee of Bar Examiners is scheduled to make its decisions in June on recommendations to the state supreme court about whether to admit or deny admission to bar applicants.Laura Emde, a spokeswoman for the State Bar of California, calls this “a unique situation.”But clearly precedent exists, in the form of actions by two state supreme courts, for righting such past wrongs, even if it is merely a symbolic gesture.As Professor Chin points out, “Admitting Mr. Chang would be a powerful symbol of our state’s repudiation of laws that singled out Chinese immigrants for discrimination.”
No matter what kind of plot twists, turns, and unexpected, you-didn’t-see-this-one-coming moments that you may see on television legal dramas like “The Good Wife,” they will never compare to the shocking moments that you can see on a regular basis in the legal world.Last week, an exasperated judge in Florida actually challenged a public defender to a fight, then stepped outside and beat him up!(Not surprisingly, that judge is taking some time off for anger management counseling).And that’s not the only piece of oddball news, as the following examples demonstrate:
A murder trial in Genoa, Italy was suspended recently because two members of the court’s staff were having sex—right next to the courtroom!The couple was in an office with smoked glass windows, and clearly thought they couldn’t be seen or heard.Unfortunately, the outline of two naked bodies was visible and their moans of passion were audible to Judge Anna Ivaldi and prosecutor Sabrina Monteverde.The judge immediately halted the trial and had the lovers (one of whom is married) taken aside.An investigation is pending.
Who says the legal system moves slowly?Dan Greding of Santa Barbara, California recently got a ticket for being parked longer than the 75 minute limit in a newly-redone block of that city’s downtown.There’s just one problem: Greding is a sign installer for the city, and he was the one installing the very signs warning of the time limit when he was ticketed!Yes, some overzealous parking cop wrote Greding a ticket while he was finishing up his installing and painting.Says Greding, “I was dumbfounded.I just put those signs up 20 minutes ago.”
William Clyde Gibson of New Albany, Indiana, age 56, is accused of brutally killing 3 women.After being convicted last fall of murdering one victim, Gibson made a rather poor choice in body art before the proceeding; getting a tattoo that reads “Death row X 3” on the back of his shaved head.Concerned that the jury might be prejudiced by seeing a reference to Gibson’s other crimes, Judge Susan Orth ordered that the defendant not be given haircuts, so that his hair will cover the tattoo.Gibson’s request to keep his cleanshaven look and simply cover the tattoo with makeup was denied.
Roy Ortiz of Broomfield, Colorado may be grateful for being rescued by first responders during flash flooding that submerged his car last September.But you wouldn’t know it by his actions.Ortiz has filed papers indicating his intent to sue his rescuers, claiming that they took too long to respond and rescue him after his car was washed off the road on September 12, 2013.As a result, Ortiz claims, he was trapped in his upside-down car for 2 hours, suffering injuries that resulted in about $40,000 in medical bills.He’s seeking $500,000 in total damages.Gosh, Roy, you shouldn’t have gone to the trouble of a lawsuit—a simple thank you would suffice.
Justice Ed Morgan lost his patience with both sides in a contentious spat between wealthy neighbors in a tony Toronto enclave.The Ontario judge’s recent opinion recounted how the feud between an oil executive and his wife and a psychiatrist and his wife arose over an incident involving a bag of dog feces and escalated into a long-running expensive dispute.In tossing out the case and ordering each side to bear its own court costs, Justice Morgan wrote that “the parties do not need a judge; what they need is a rather stern kindergarten teacher.They are acting like children.”If only more judges were like this!
It’s never a good idea to lie on your resume.It’s an even worse idea to use a fictional school as your alma mater, and probably the worst possible idea to use a well-recognized fictional school.Yet that apparently did not stop one cheeky would-be lawyer in the United Kingdom from applying for a solicitor’s position with a firm, listing on his resume a law degree from Hogwarts—yes, the Hogwarts of “Harry Potter” fame.Even if this creative young man doesn’t get an interview, let’s hope he took the “Defense Against the Dark Arts” course—that could really come in handy when dealing with lawyers.And believe it or not, there really is a lawyer named Harry Potter—a criminal law specialist in London!
Mistaking a human in a gorilla costume for a real gorilla usually only happens in the movies.But at Loro Parque, a theme park on a Spanish island, the hiring standards for staff veterinarians are apparently pretty low.During a practice drill to simulate an escaped animal situation, a park employee was dressed in a gorilla suit to add “realism” to the exercise.It was too much realism for one hapless veterinarian, who shot the co-worker with a tranquilizer gun.To make matters worse, the “gorilla” suffered an allergic reaction to the tranquilizer, and had to be evacuated to a nearby hospital.A legal investigation is pending into all of this “monkey business.”
Readers often ask if some of the more bizarre cases, litigants, and lawyers featured in “Legally Speaking” are made up.They’re not.Not only am I not creative enough to come up with such examples, I don’t have to—for the simple reason that our legal system is already packed with more crazy but true stories than I could hope to invent.Consider the following:
Don’t invite Cameron Roth out for sushi anytime soon.The Tennessee man has filed a lawsuit against the operators of a Tennessee haunted house, claiming that he choked on a live fish that he ate at their establishment, causing him to be hospitalized for four days.The strange part is that Mr. Roth had paid a $15 entry fee to compete in the Frightmare haunted house’s live fish-eating contest, during which he was supposed to eat two live bluegill fish.Roth choked when the first fish got lodged in his throat, a fact he blames on the operators’ failing to remove any of the spines from the fish (but how can they be “live” fish if you remove their spines?).Roth seeks $150,000 in compensatory damages and $400,000 in punitive damages.
If entering a live fish-eating contest and then complaining that the fish had spines isn’t assumption of the risk, then how about the lawsuit brought against Playboy Enterprises and radio host Kevin Klein by Playboy model Liz Dickson recently?The comely Ms. Dickson was one of the Playboy models “hosting” the Playboy Golf Finals event on March 30, 2012, when she agreed to take part in a stunt.The stunt called for her to be photographed lying on her stomach with her buttocks exposed while Klein hit a golf ball from a tee that was placed between her, um, cheeks.But the stunt went awry when Klein struck her buttocks instead, “causing her injuries and damages,” according to the lawsuit.Although video of the incident shows Dickson laughing it off, now she’s clearly “teed off.”
Richard Masten, the executive director of the Miami-Dade County Crime Stoppers, was recently in a Florida court, ordered to hand over an anonymous tip that led to a cocaine possession case.But Masten either decided to defy the court’s order, or perhaps he just was hungry.On videotape, in the courtroom Masten instead swallowed the evidence, a sheet containing information that could provide the tipster’s identity.Masten, a former police chief in Florida, says “We promise the people who give us information to solve murders, serious violent crimes in this community, that they can call us with an assurance that they will remain anonymous and that nothing about them or their information would ever be compromised.”Judge Victoria Brennan was not amused.She fined Masten $500, and ordered him to turn over the information sought or face two weeks in jail for contempt.
There’s no limit to the talent of Scottsdale, Arizona attorney Mark Goldman’s bull terrier, Walter.Walter has an “honorary law degree” and his own photo on the website of Goldman’s law firm.But apparently Walter also helps sniff out scam artists.It seems an increasingly common scam in which fraudsters approach an attorney asking him to represent a fictitious company to “collect a debt” was directed to Goldman’s law firm.The scam artists tell the lawyer to take a generous cut of the “proceeds” (a false check) before forwarding a very real cashier’s check from the law firm’s (now artificially higher) bank account.But Mark Goldman got rather suspicious when the “lawyer” the scammers targeted was Walter.Needless to say, Goldman’s law firm didn’t bite.
Lawyers have resorted to all kinds of advertising to attract clients.Houston-based attorney Eric P. Mirabel is looking to take that concept to a new level—and perhaps dispel the notion of intellectual property attorneys as boring or staid— with a rap video.Yes, a rap video starring our very own patent law gangsta Eric P. Mirabel, or “EPM.”The video, which has to be seen to be believed, is on Mirabel’s website along with lyrics that are actually footnoted.Sample lyrics include “You want patents? /You don’t have to yearn that/’cause I know IP, my record affirms that.” And “I twist up what’s written/use it as ammunition/I’ll gut your position or I’ll win by decision.”Word to your mother—if this approach actually works, I may have to put on some bling and change my name to “the Notorious JGB.”
I’ve written before about judges who sprinkle “Star Trek” references, rock lyrics, and even Dr. Seuss shoutouts into their judicial opinions.Now, courtesy of one alert “Legally Speaking” reader, comes a Colorado federal judge with a fondness for Monty Python.U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Sidney Brooks was clearly a bit frustrated with one party in a bankruptcy proceeding who failed to give the court reasons for its request for certain sworn testimony, and then referenced the “reasons above” in making the request.In a footnote, Judge Brooks found such reasoning reminiscent of the “reasoning” used to determine if a woman is a witch in the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and even quoted the film’s hilarious exchange between peasants getting ready to burn an innocent woman suspected of witchcraft, and the “learned” knight who corrects them.Now, if Judge Brooks could find a way to work in the Black Knight, a giant killer rabbit, and a holy hand grenade . . . .
As I make my way through the day to day drudgery that usually characterizes the legal system, it is easy to overlook the humorous moments that happen—and believe me, they do happen.Just consider the following incidents:
Remember the “bring out your dead” scene in the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” where one unfortunate—but still very much alive—peasant tries to convince his overeager relative that he hadn’t yet died from the plague?He might identify with Kimberly Haman of St. Louis, who in February actually filed a lawsuit to prove that she is still very much alive!It seems that Heartland Bank declared her dead nearly a year ago, and passed the word of her “demise” to credit reporting giant Equifax.As a result, says the alive and kicking Haman, she’s been refused credit cards and blocked from refinancing her mortgage twice after potential lenders noted her “deceased” status (those dead people are such poor credit risks, aren’t they?).Although she says she repeatedly complained to both the bank and the credit bureau about the grave error, Haman got no results—hence the lawsuit.According to the suit, the credit reporting error has been a nightmare for Haman, and “rendered [her] hopeless as to her ability to regain her good name and the credit rating that she deserves and has worked hard to earn.”Heartland Bank claims it has taken “steps to correct this issue” and blames the continued error on Equifax.Although the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires credit reporting agencies to conduct reasonable investigations into claims of inaccurate information and report back to consumers, one study by the Federal Trade Commission in 2013 found that 26% of consumers find at least one “potentially material” error on credit bureau reports.
Perhaps Ms. Haman should have lived in Turkey, where even death provides no escape from the legal system.According to Turkish media, Turkish postal officers (who double as a kind of process servers) entrusted with providing court notifications to individuals have been known to make an unusual stop—at the cemetery.The Turkish Radio and Television Corporation did a report on postal officers who, upon learning that an individual addressee has deceased, actually posted notifications on the recipient’s gravestone.The accompanying note reads “Under Article 35 of the Notification Law, notification was posted on the recipient’s gravestone because he is deceased.”Apparently, the cemetery is treated as a kind of “last known address,” since forwarding notices can be a bit tricky when it comes to different planes of existence.
With all due apologies to Justin Timberlake, the real person bringing “sexy” back may be the former Sheila Ranea Crabtree of Pataskala, Ohio.It seems she’s always hated her given name, calling it “the ugliest one out there.”So Ms. Crabtree filed a petition with an Ohio court to have her name legally changed to “Sexy,” since she says she’s “fun and free-spirited.”The judge granted her request, so now the fun can really start with things like restaurant reservations (“Sexy, party of two, your table is ready”) to routine introductions (“Hi, I’m Sexy.”Response: “You really think highly of yourself, don’t you?”).
A young female judge serving on Bosnia’s High Court has lost her job.According to published reports in Sarajevo, the judge was in the habit of working out in the nude in her office, and then sunbathing while lying on a table (the office has large windows).But apparently, the ample opportunity for sunning oneself also was an opportunity for early risers at government offices across the street to catch the judge’s impromptu peepshow.After the newspapers ran a report—complete with photos—on “the naked judge,” the judicial disciplinary commission fired her for “damaging the image” of the High Court.Disrobing in one context, it seems, can lead to a very different kind of disrobing.
And finally for something decidedly unsexy, in January, a British judge had to admonish a jury presiding over the trial of a man charged with bestiality.It seems that the jury heard testimony from witnesses discussing how 61 year-old Paul Lovell had tried unsuccessfully to have sex with a cow, and then “tried his luck” with a sheep.According to Court News UK, the members of the jury burst into uncontrollable laughter at the description of the incident.Judge James Patrick was not so amused, telling the jury “I well understand that there are aspects of it that are unusual and amusing.If you do find the case particularly funny, if you can try to get over your laughter over lunch that would be great.”
In many aspects of life, there’s something to be said for the element of surprise, whether it’s catching your spouse off guard with an unexpected gift for no reason, or simply changing up your usual dinner order at a favorite restaurant.Sometimes, it pays to “zig” when others expect you to “zag,” and this is as true in the legal system as it is in other things.Of course, as the following examples show, sometimes it doesn’t turn out as well as one would like.
Jonique Ramon Webster is what some would call a career criminal, but that doesn’t mean the career has been going well.In June 2013, only nine hours after his release from state prison on a ten-year stretch for home burglary, Webster was apprehended for another robbery.After getting off the bus in Waco, Webster wandered around and eventually broke into a home, making off with a bicycle and a small amount of cash.Unfortunately for him, the house he broke into belonged to Gabrielle Massey, a McLennan County prosecutor.A neighbor called the police, and Webster was apprehended and later pleaded guilty.With several prior convictions, he was sentenced to forty years in prison.
In October 2013, Orleans Parish (Louisiana) District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro went on a radio talk show program to talk about a recent high-profile defeat.Cannizzaro’s office had prosecuted a police officer, Jamal Kendrick, for malfeasance after the officer’s dashcam video appeared to show Kendrick slapping a civilian six times while he lay handcuffed face-down on the pavement.Cannizzaro was discussing the acquittal by criminal district court Judge Ben Willard with the talkshow co-hosts on WBOK-AM when a surprise listener called in—Judge Willard!The judge launched into a lively defense of his ruling, and then dropped another surprise: he was standing at the radio station’s front door, and asked to be let in to the studio (the hosts declined).Longtime listener, first time caller?
Last October, a BMW SUV being driven by a ninety year-old retired lawyer in Menlo Park, California inexplicably jumped the curb onto the sidewalk, pinning two, six year-old twin brothers against a wall. Both boys suffered serious injuries; one was in the hospital for five weeks.Not surprisingly, a personal injury lawsuit was filed on their behalf.But what was surprising was the response to the lawsuit filed by the ninety year-old defendant’s legal team, which claimed that the boys “carelessly, recklessly, and negligently conducted and maintained themselves” in a way that contributed to the accident, and that they had “voluntarily” “placed themselves in a position of danger.”Right—because that’s what everybody casually strolling along a sidewalk should expect—a nonogenerian who can’t control his vehicle suddenly mistaking a sidewalk for the interstate.Give me a break!
Aaron Strahan and Troy Tonalin are two Australian police officers who are facing charges of assault for repeatedly tasering Kevin Spratt back in August 2008.According to the officers, Spratt was under the influence of alcohol and possibly drugs, and was resisting attempts to place him in custody and search him.But during questioning by the judge about Mr. Spratt’s screaming in anguish during the incident, defense attorney Karen Vernon argued that most of the charges against her clients should be dismissed since Spratt could have been screaming in “joy or laughter.”Seriously?Don’t worry, the judge didn’t buy it either, and ordered the trial to continue.
Defense attorneys for two Fullerton, California police officers accused of using excessive force to subdue an unarmed homeless man in 2011 made a unique argument during the December 2013 trial.Former police officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli denied engaging in police brutality against thirty-seven year-old Kelly Thomas, maintaining that he had only “superficial bruising” when EMTs put him into an ambulance (Thomas died).Defense attorneys for the officers advanced a novel theory—that Thomas died not as a result of being clubbed, punched, kicked, and tasered repeatedly for five minutes even after he fell silent, but because he “killed himself” by overexerting himself.
Finally, here’s a surprise courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.Richie Farmer gained fame as a member of the University of Kentucky’s men’s basketball team in the early ’90s, helping the Wildcats persevere through NCAA sanctions and make it back to the NCAA tournament in 1992.The school even retired his number 32 jersey, which hangs proudly in Rupp Arena in Lexington.Farmer went on to even bigger things, serving as Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner.But Farmer pleaded guilty to abusing his public office, and on March 18, is expected to report to federal prison to begin his twenty-seven month sentence.Just in time for “March Madness,” however, the college hoops fans at the Federal Bureau of Prisons have announced that Farmer will be issued a familiar number on his inmate uniform—a number 16226-032.It just looks a little different on an orange jumpsuit than on a basketball jersey—surprise!