Law blog roundup: Ben Matlock offers the best defense

Still wish you were on vacation? Most of your co-workers out for week? Here’s some “work” you can do to pass the time:

Law blog roundup

Still upset about last night’s game? Just getting to work now because of last night’s game? Here are some links to take your mind off it.

Law blog roundup: Do you want fries with that?

Another Monday on the books. Here’s some light reading to start off your week in the legal know.

Judge Russell speaks

Baltimore County District Court Judge G. Darrell Russell Jr. broke his silence about his controversial decision to marry a man accused of domestic violence and his alleged victim the day of the accused’s trial.

Russell e-mailed and spoke with The Baltimore Sun’s Dan Rodricks, who in a column Sunday described a condition he called “judicial glaze” that can affect district court judges who hear a variation on the same case over and over again.

You can read Russell’s comments here. Russell said he never read the statement of probable cause in the case in order to remain unbiased, “so I had no idea of the nature of the offense until I heard it on TV.”

There were two other passages from Russell’s comments I found interesting. First, on the defense request to postpone the trial so the couple could obtain a marriage license:

I had two options. Grant the postponement whereby they would be wed and later she would not testify, or deny the postponement and the public defender would pray a jury trial, thus giving the defendant a three week postponement and plenty of time to marry. What I did was a third option which cut to the chase. I expedited the inevitable. It’s a mentality engendered by big dockets in Essex and the necessity of moving cases.

Second, on what happened when the couple came back with a marriage license that afternoon after having the standard, 48-hour waiting period waived:

I felt I owed it to them to at least talk to them. I took them back in my chambers and questioned them thoroughly before deciding that they were indeed sincere, and why not legitimize their relationship and their children? It was perhaps my Catholic conscience. This was not a woman in any way in fear for her safety. In the courtroom her body language said that she wasn’t going to be a good witness. She wouldn’t stand next to the state’s attorney but rather clung to the defendant. Incidentally, she has since called to thank me.

Russell concluded that he should have let someone else marry them in retrospect and literally offered a “Mea Culpa” for making an “error of judgment out of good intentions.”


An ‘A’ for creativity

During my days in College Park, I accumulated a pile of free Terps T-shirts that I would wear to football and basketball games. Some may have been a little big, and roughly 5,000 other students would be wearing the exact same shirt, but hey, they were free.

I say this because we all probably did something similarly resourceful while in school to save a few bucks. Two recent stories about law school students have reinforced my point.

First is Julia Neyman, a student at Columbia Law School. Neyman has a blog, the cleverly-titled “Buns of Steal,” in which she chronicles her attempt to work out at health clubs in New York City for an entire year without paying once.

Neyman found gym memberships too expensive upon moving to New York to start law school but soon noticed gyms around the city gave out free passes and coupons. Enter her blog and her goal.

“Most people aren’t cheap enough to do this for a whole year,” she told The New York Daily News. “But I am.”

Next is University of Baltimore School of Law student Burke Miller, who posted an ad on Craigslist seeking tickets to Wednesday night’s Duke-Maryland basketball game in exchange for providing a certain number of billable hours to the seller upon passing the bar.

Miller told The Baltimore Sun one ticket seller contacted him but declined the offer.

“I’m still hopeful,” he said. “I’d sit down with [a seller] and make a contract and look at the standard billable rate for a young attorney. I’ve got full faith that I’d be a good attorney.”

I wish them both the best. (Incidentally, I’d be willing to part with some of my Terps T-shirts for a ticket to the game.)

A potentially explosive burglary

If my home were ever burglarized, I think the strangest thing a thief could pilfer would be an 18-inch-tall sailor statue that sits on a side table in my living room. (Old Salty is good at his job; I’ve never gotten seasick nor have I been attacked by pirates while sitting on my sofa.)

I thought about this after I received a press release from Baltimore County police yesterday warning residents that the burglar of a Monkton home took two hand grenades that possibly could explode.

The suspect stole so-called “pineapple” hand grenades commonly used in World War II. Here are the key sentences from the police e-mail:

“The caretaker of the weapons does not remember whether the grenades were disabled or are live. These grenades are DANGEROUS, and can cause injury or death.”

I would have to echo a person who responded to The Sun’s story about the burglary: why did the homeowner have possible live grenades in his home?

“Judge” granted a reprieve

300px-judgeparker.pngI, like many others, religiously read newspaper comics. (Among my favorites: Pearls Before SwineF Minus, Get Fuzzy and Speed Bump.) So while I never read Judge Parker, I was pleased to learn The Washington Post has returned the strip to its print edition after an uproar among the storyline’s loyal followers.

Judge Parker, initially about a man who is jurist by day, crime fighter by night, is a serial, soap opera-style strip that first appeared in 1952. The strip was cut in the Post’s print version along with several other comics a few weeks ago but was brought back this week after the paper received more than 750 complaints about the decision – a number “far more than any other topic,” ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote in his Sunday column.

The lesson here is that while newspapers can trim and cut all they want, the comics section is a third rail that must be handled with extreme caution. Notice how The Baltimore Sun has apparently stopped printing its “You” section Mondays and Tuesdays but shifted its entire comics page elsewhere.

Incidentally, if there are local fans of The Phantom interested in starting Judge Parker-like movement to return the strip to The Sun, please let me know. My dad has been hoping for its return for years.

Cop case has judge singing sources’ praise

It is bettter to leak one memo than to curse the dark lagoon. 

So says 4th Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, “a former ink-stained wretch who went on to become a judge [but] still has a soft spot for old-school newspapers,” writes Deborah Elkins, our sister blogger at Virginia Lawyers Weekly.

As we noted last week, the Richmond-based court revived a retaliation lawsuit by a police officer who had leaked an internal memo to The (Baltimore) Sun. Wilkinson concurred but wrote separately in praise of that cherished entity: The Source.

“To throw out this citizen who took his concerns to the press on a motion to dismiss would have profound adverse effects on accountability in government … at a particularly parlous time,” Wilkinson wrote.

As traditional newsgathering organizations “have been shuttered or shrunk,” the judge wrote, coverage of state and local government “has too often been reduced to low-hanging fruit” and “increasingly shortchanged.”

As a result, “it may be more important than ever that [inside] sources carry the story to the reporter, because there are, sad to say, fewer shoe leather journalists to ferret the story out… It is vital to the health of our polity that the functioning of the ever more complex and powerful machinery of government not become democracy’s dark lagoon.”

So, have you leaked any internal memos today?

Suing the boss

Once again, it’s pop quiz time! Who said the following in 1976:

“Grave dancing is an art that has many potential benefits. But one must be careful while prancing around not to fall into the open pit and join the cadaver.”

If you guessed Tribune Co. CEO Sam Zell, you have a very good memory – or you may be one of the six current or former Los Angeles Times staffers who filed a federal class action lawsuit against Zell and Tribune last week in California.

Zell’s quote serves as a prologue for the 64-page lawsuit stemming from his buyout last year of Tribune that more than tripled the company’s debt to nearly $13 billion, now shouldered by the company’s 18,000 employees. The lawsuit seeks to recover money lost from the employee stock-option plan, which Zell used to make the deal, as well as removal of Zell and other members of Tribune’s board of directors.

(Tribune Co. is the owner of The Baltimore Sun, whose recent layoffs, budget cuts and redesign under new management have been adeptly chronicled by my colleague, Liz Farmer.)

Zell has already called the lawsuit “frivolous” and “unfounded,” and much of it recaps the documented changes Tribune and its subsidiaries have undergone since he purchased it.

But, as Richard Siklos of Fortune magazine writes: “the notion that these might constitute actionable wrongs is fresh, as is the idea that Zell is a villain for wildly overpaying for the company and saddling it with an additional $8.3 billion in debt.”

So what do you think? Is the lawsuit a legitimate employee beef? Or simply sour grapes?

DANNY JACOBS, Legal Affairs Writer

When is a victim not sympathetic?

Possibly when he or she lives for more than a year in a half-million dollar home while paying next to nothing.

In “Rescue is quirk of timing” in Wednesday’s edition of The (Baltimore) Sun, the lead anecdote is Veronica Peterson, a 45-year-old single mother of three who says she can’t keep up with the mortgage payments on a $545,000 house in Columbia. She says she expects an eviction notice any day. The story presents her as a victim of the foreclosure crisis.

However, that’s apparently not the full story. I’ll let the City Paper explain:

…in the comments section below the article, hundreds of readers pointed out what the Sun’s reporters and editors could not, apparently: that Peterson had no business in that house, and that she’s lived there for more than a year rent- and mortgage-free. “Where do you think we can get in on this deal?” one commenter, calling himself Henry Bowman, asked another.

The City Paper goes on to dissect the loan numbers:

The online court and land records show that Peterson closed on the house on Nov. 3, 2006, with two loans from Washington Mutual. The main mortgage, for $436,000, had a starting interest rate of 8.5 percent, adjusting in December of this year to the London Interbank Offered Rate plus 4.99 percent. The second loan, often called a “piggyback,” totaled $109,000 with an interest rate of 11.5 percent, according to The Sun.

Those two payments together would have totaled $3,386.17 per month. That’s before property taxes, upkeep, utilities, etc. Peterson would have to earn at least $50,000 per year just to make her house payments.

But it appears that Peterson made few–if any–payments. The foreclosure was filed July 31, 2007. The balance on the main note then was $435,735.86, plus unpaid interest accrued from Jan. 1, 2007, plus $1,005.72 in late charges. This suggests that Peterson made, at most, one payment on her house: the December, 2006 payment. Given the grace periods typical in home-mortgage business, it is at least as likely that her first payment was not due until January 2007, which would mean she has made zero payments.

Had she made all of her payments, Peterson would have spent about $64,335 so far. Had she rented a similar place, she would have been charged around $2,500 per month–a total of $47,500–since January 2007. Instead, she apparently paid nothing.

Not much of a “victim,” I’d say. I’m also shocked that someone would take out a mortgage for the full price of a home. Am I missing the down payment in this transaction?

JOE BACCHUS, Web Specialist