Law blog roundup

Welcome to Monday and a hoped-for end to the recent heat wave. Here are some news items to get the week started.

– Justice has not been delayed, merely sequestered.

– The George Zimmerman case is not over for its prosecutors.

– “Re-segregation” trial opens in North Carolina federal court.

– Lawyers rank below business executives — and journalists — in Pew Research Center poll.



Celebrities: They report for jury duty just like us!

The stars literally aligned in Baltimore City Circuit Court as not one, but two Baltimore celebrities showed up for jury duty Tuesday. Both Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps AND celebrity chef Duff Goldman reported to court to perform their civic responsibilities.

While our trial courts reporter said she did not see any crowds or chaos at the courthouse today, The Baltimore Sun reported Phelps created a small uproar, with not only prospective jurors but courthouse employees jockeying for pictures with the Olympic gold medalist.

It eventually got to the point where Phelps had to be taken to another room and the rest of the jurors were given a speech about courthouse conduct, The Sun reported.

Cake impresario Goldman is known for his show, “Ace of Cakes,” about his Baltimore bakery, Charm City Cakes.

Apparently being rich and famous is not a reason to get out of jury duty and other celebrities have shown up at their hometown courthouses over the years. Anderson Cooper apparently fell asleep at jury duty. Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses and Sarah Jessica Parker love jury duty. Even The Material Girl has shown up to perform her civic duty.

Tweetbusters: Should jurors police each other?

The revised model jury instructions on the use of social media, released last week by the federal judiciary, have an interesting feature, Justia columnist Anita Ramasastry notes.

In addition to banning the use of social media to discuss the case or conduct research, the judge is supposed to admonish the panel, “I expect you will inform me as soon as you become aware of another juror’s violation of these instructions.”

Ramasastry writes:

Granted, jurors have always been expected to report misconduct by fellow jurors during deliberations. But are we, as citizens, going to be effective gatekeepers for our colleagues in the jury room? Is it our job to figure out who is going on Facebook? Will the instructions create a situation where we all cautiously try to spy on one another, and catch fellow jurors behaving badly? …

Even though fellow jurors have already played a key role, in some cases, in enforcing the social-media ban, do we really want to play the role of being of fellow jurors’ keepers?

To me, the admonition seems less a mandate than permission — letting jurors know it’s not just OK to tell, but expected. Is there really a downside to this?

Jury duty jam

Two of life’s greatest inconveniences — jury duty and traffic — collided this week in California.

A courthouse computer system in Auburn accidentally summoned 1,200 people for jury duty  Tuesday. Traffic was jammed on the way to the Placer County Courthouse as citizens tried to report at 8 a.m.

“I’m a very mellow guy so it didn’t bother me but you could see the disdain and frustration on the faces of some of the other people,” a potential juror told the Auburn Journal. “They have to do a lot of juggling in the work place and in some, they don’t pay you for jury duty and you have to take unpaid time off or vacation time.”

The computer system was supposed to alert 900 people that they were not to show up for jury duty, but the automated message told them they should appear in court instead. Some called in beforehand to the courthouse, but about 800 people are estimated to have headed to court that day.

“The alert failed to notify us yesterday afternoon, so the clerk failed to update the system,” assistant court executive officer Geoff Brandt told CBS Sacramento. “The system then goes into default mode, and we were unaware the default mode was to call in every jury panel we had scheduled for the week.”

Justice decayed, answers to questions of feasbility delayed

Everyone agrees the Baltimore City Circuit Court buildings are “absolutely terrible” and that a new courthouse is in order, the city’s administrative judge declared at a meeting of city and state criminal justice officials last fall.

To this end, the city and its circuit court ponied up between $600,000 and $700,000 for a Maryland Stadium Authority-picked consultant to study the upgrade possibilities.

At that same September 2009 Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting, the representative from Los Angeles-based consultancy AECOM Inc. promised a final report with recommendations by this past spring.

In January, MSA spokeswoman Jan Hardesty offered assurances of that schedule.

“It’s on course, it’s on schedule,” Hardesty said. “It should be out in early spring.”

When nothing came out by June, I spoke with Judge Marcella Holland, the city’s administrative judge, who told me the study’s publication date was more likely to be late summer. When it still wasn’t out by late September, I asked again after its progress. The latest update came Friday from MSA Project Executive Gary A. McGuigan, who acknowledged the delay but said such an important matter should not be rushed.

“It’s still going to be a little bit,” he said. “My best guess right now is it’s probably going to be the end of the year.

“It’s very complicated. It’s a very large report, and we want to make sure we get this thing right,” McGuigan explained. “It’s taken longer than I had hoped, but like I said, we want to get this thing right.”

So, given that it’s already been several years that litigants, lawyers, judges, courthouse employees and members of the public have had to deal with a decaying — if still stately in some ways — pair of courthouses, and it won’t be several more years (or, God forbid, decades) until the problem is properly solved, what’s another year or so (and a half million dollars) more spent putting a plan together?

Law blog roundup

Happy Columbus Day. If you’re at work, like those of us at The Daily Record, here are some law links to check out. If you’re off today, get out there and enjoy the beautiful weather.

  • Is the cost of supplying lawyers to defendants in bail hearings worth it? Page Croyder says it would require lawyers to be available 24-7 and cost taxpayers a boatload.
  • Good news in the legal industry: Jobs are on the rise. The national economy may still be in the dumps, but law firms are adding employees.
  • The former voice of Dora the Explorer is suing MTV and Viacom for forcing her to sign a contract without allowing a lawyer review it. The girl’s family claims she’s been underpaid by at least $2 million. Vamanos! We have to sue!
  • D’oh! EEOC sues employer for disability discrimination based on obesity.
  • One South Carolina family law firm says no kvetching — we’ll get to you when we can.
  • Attorneys and judges are grappling with juror comments on Facebook. This might be deja vu for readers who followed the Dixon trial.
  • Lawyers will fight death penalty with economic argument: It’s just too expensive (HT: How Appealing).

Noticed but nameless in The Wall Street Journal

“A Maryland newspaper.”

Really, The Wall Street Journal? You write about news The Daily Record broke, and you credit “a Maryland newspaper”?

What, your story ran over by a line so you had to cut out our name? Or maybe all your fact-checkers had the day off?

Or were you trying to be cute, since today’s article — “Anonymous Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury” — is, after all, about withholding names?

In the article, reporters Ashby Jones and Nathan Koppel use the trial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich as a news hook to discuss the practice of withholding the names and addresses of jurors.

Continue reading

The jury reached a verdict. Did you?

Earlier this week, I presented in this space details about a jury trial in a case concerning a mailman and a dog. The letter carrier, Mary Jo Davis, had sued Charles and Karen Cheelsman after their dog, Lucky, allegedly attacked Davis as she attempted to deliver the mail in 2007. Davis subsequently needed knee surgery and was seeking $550,000 in damages.

So what happened in Baltimore County Circuit Court earlier this month?

(I’ll give you a minute in case you want to “refresh your recollection.”)

A jury deliberated for less than an hour before finding in favor of the defendants. Andre M. Forte, the Cheelsmans’ lawyer, said the jury looked at Lucky’s history of human interaction in determining whether the couple was negligent.

“The past history of my clients’ dog showed he was a lovable dog who never showed a propensity of vicious behavior,” Forte said, describing Lucky as a “big, huge goofball.”

Forte, who has handled other dog bite cases and spoken on the subject, said neighbors testified that the worst Lucky ever did was growl or snarl at them.

Mary Ann Ryan, Davis’ lawyer, said last week that no decision on an appeal had been made. (No notice of appeal was listed in the court record at lunchtime Friday.)

Ryan agreed with Forte that the jury was reluctant to find the Cheelsmans negligent based on Lucky’s history.

“Every dog gets one bite,” she said.

Davis is recovering from surgery unrelated to the alleged attack, Ryan added, but she will soon return to her mail route. That includes the Cheelsman house.

The ‘Shaggy defense’ and other pop-culture legal strategies

A recent declaration by our sister publication, Virginia Lawyers Weekly, that the “Shaggy defense” is a term of legal art went national this week.

That’s thanks to Slate, the online magazine that picked up a recent VLW story on a U.S. District Court judge’s ruling on a summary judgment motion. In Preston v. Morton, David Morton said he was working on traffic lights in a bucket truck when William Preston, driving a tractor trailer, hit the truck.

Preston’s defense? “It wasn’t me.”

You can read more about U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser’s opinion in the civil case here. The defense — coined during the 2008 child pornography trial of singer R. Kelly and attributed to the song “It Wasn’t Me” by reggae star Shaggy — got me thinking of other uses of popular culture in cases. As someone who has not gone through law school, this kind of terminology helps me to understand the basic facts.

For example, South Park taught me one way to win a case is with the Chewbacca defense. O.J. Simpson’s intrepid lawyer, Johnnie Cochrane, was cartoon-ized on “South Park” in the season 2 episode “Chef Aid.” He wins his case despite an absurd argument:

“Why would a Wookiee, an eight-foot-tall Wookiee, want to live on Endor? If Chewbacca lives on Endor you must acquit!” he shouted to the jury.

Here are two other cases that show popular culture making its way into law:

  • The Matrix defense: Three defendants claimed insanity from being convinced they committed the crimes in a Matrix-like virtual reality. Two were found not guilty, but Joshua Cooke, accused of murdering his parents in February 2003, ended up pleading guilty later that year.
  • The Twinkie defense: Dan White, a former San Francisco city supervisor, claimed that junk food diminished his mental capacity, resulting in the murder of city mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. White’s lawyer successfully argued the case and the sentence was reduced to manslaughter.

Monday law blog round-up

Happy Monday! Here are a few law links to start your week:

  • The Baltimore no-pork-no-foster-child decision seems “unjustifiable” to Eugene Volokh at the Volokh Conspiracy.
  • Perhaps the judge in the Constance McMillen gay prom case “should find the entire community of Fulton, Mississippi, (pop. 4000) in contempt if the evidence warrants and if there’s a way to do it,” writes Marc Poirier at Concurring Opinions.
  • Televise this chief justice and this president on stage at the Kennedy Center for three hours talking about the role of government and the future of our polity,” [UC Berkeley law dean Christopher] Edley said. “This historic clash of intellectual titans would be the most powerful civics lesson since the Federalist Papers, and we could sure use it.” HT: Constitutional Law Prof Blog.
  • Here’s how to spot a potential “holdout juror” before you put him or her on your jury.
  • Cool! Who knew? “In 1925, the Texas Governor appointed three women to fill all the positions on the Texas Supreme Court to hear a single case:  an appeal involving Woodmen of the World, a fraternal group whose members included virtually every male lawyer in the state.”