February 23rd, 2016

Mark Bennett – Standing in the Well

Mark Bennett, before the Georgia Supreme Court. Yes, that is an actual quote.

Mark Bennett, before the Georgia Supreme Court. Yes, that is an actual quote. (Graphic by Marc Randazza.)

Do you ever wonder, when reading a law blog, just how well that writer actually actually practices law? Standing in the courtroom well in front of a jury or appellate panel, after all, ain’t the same as pounding a keyboard.

Yesterday I got to watch one in action, that being Texas criminal defense lawyer Mark Bennett. He writes at Defending People, and is the author of, quite possibly, the most important blog post ever written about potential clients, which is important because it also deals in more general terms with crazy people on the internet. And let’s face, this web has lots of crazy. He gives 10 short Rules.

Anyway, Bennett has a side interest in First Amendment defense, as legislatures often try to criminalize certain speech. He’s successfully argued that several laws are unconstitutional and and has a wish list for more. One of them is in Georgia.

So yesterday found him standing in the Georgia Supreme Court arguing about dirty talk to juveniles (Scott v. The State). I watched from my desk via video feed (found here, last one at bottom).

Bennet was there to say the law was unconstitutional because it was over broad — and the means it may sweep up and affect not only those engaging in unprotected speech, but also those that are engaging in protected speech.

To illustrate his point, Bennet said, in words I never thought I would hear in a high court:

I was a 15-year-old boy, and I don’t believe I was harmed by being sexually aroused. I spent most of my teenage years trying to be sexually aroused.

But I’m not actually here to write today on the legal issue that Bennett covers often at his blog (see Scott Greenfield on the merits), but rather, to answer a simple question: Does this writer have the chops as a lawyer? The problem is that all I ever get to see — all the vast majority of people get to see — is his writing and opinions.

And the answer is a huge, unqualified yes.  Bennett was poised, well-spoken, fluid and in absolute command of his material, He quickly (and voluntarily) gave up points that were not important to him instead of stupidly arguing them. The facts of this case? Not important, he said, because his argument had to do with the scope of the law, not the particular facts of the case.

He used language and examples (himself as a teenager) to make his critical point, one that is easily understandable because he wasn’t the only one in that courtroom that was once 15. And he delivered that key argument so smoothly you would think it had just popped into his brain.

I’ve watched many people argue in trial and appellate courts over the years. Compared to others I have seen, Bennett was top notch.

Many years ago I started a category for this blog called Inside the Well, because standing there and talking on your feet and taking questions is a whole different beast than writing. I wrote once, for instance, about one lawyer that fainted in the well.

One of the other links you will find there goes to a piece on Professor Mary Anne Franks, who blocked me on Twitter when I inquired about a cite she had given. This was wonderful stuff because it stood as the absolute, 100% opposite of what a lawyer actually does. If she were actually admitted to practice law, nobody in their right mind would want Franks to represent them.

On one prior occasion I got to watch a law blogger in action, that being Marc Randazza when he came to New York to argue the motion to dismiss in Rakofsky v. Internet, for which I was local counsel and for which Bennett happened to be one of our many law blogger clients that had been sued. He too was terrific standing in the well to argue, with an absolute command of his material.

And so this little post answers a question some of you may have, at least about the particular high profile law blogger. Yes, he has the chops.

 

February 12th, 2016

Time is On My Side

The AOL 2.0 floppy disk that I use as a drink coaster. Photo credit: me.

The AOL 2.0 floppy disk that I use as a drink coaster. Photo credit: me.

Yesterday, I listened to a livestream of a suicidal and paranoid member of the Bundy gang surrender in Oregon. He said he was holding a gun to his head as supporters frantically tried to reason with him as he stumbled through a slew of conspiracy theories.

Think about that —  I’m in New York City listening in on a phone call with an armed and suicidal insurrectionist in a remote part of Oregon. What would Benjamin Franklin think? How long would it take for him just to comprehend such a concept?

What a short, strange trip this whole Internet thingy has been.

I first connected via Prodigy, circa 1992. When AOL took the world by storm with its proprietary site in 1993, I was 33. Using their instant messages, you could talk with someone from Prague, in real time, as if that person was sitting in your own building. It was amazing. Revolutionary.

I knew this was going to be huge when hourly charges for dial-up service went to unlimited in 1994, and the site was so overwhelmed that folks couldn’t connect. I still have an AOL 2.0 floppy disk. I use it as a drink coaster.

The World Wide Web followed shortly thereafter.

A huge milestone in its development was the 1998 release to the web by Ken Starr that dealt, in part, with the infamous cigar that Pres. Bill Clinton shared with Monica Lewinsky. I, and countless others, read it online immediately after its release. There was no need to wait a day for the newspapers to print it and distribute it for people to start having intense discussions.

Any semblance of the 24-hour news cycle that Ted Turner‘s CNN and its progeny hadn’t already taken down, was now gone for good.

My first crude website went up in 1999, and this blog followed in 2006. YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and more all followed. Again, what would Ben Franklin think?

When I felt my midtown Manhattan building rumble in 2011 as I was sitting at my desk, I turned to Twitter, searched #earthquake, and knew within 30 seconds of the end of the quake that it had been felt from Georgia to Canada. Amazing.

We no longer wait, it seems, for anything.

Except for the law.

Much of what I do, I do the old fashioned way. It is slow and sometimes ponderous. It is the nature of litigation and trial. The world may move ever faster and faster with the explosion of technology, but the pace of the practice of law doesn’t really change.

There might be tinkering around the edges, but fundamentally it is the same today as when I started. Sure, I no longer need to bring a roll of quarters with me to the courthouse while on trial, I can electronically file complaints and motions, and I can bring my entire file to court with me on an iPad. That’s nice; it’s convenient.  Of course, as Keith Lee wrote yesterday at Above the Law, technology is just a tool.

But while the expectations of jurors may change — something that law and order TV shows also contribute to — the reality is that the lawyer’s work hasn’t.

You still have to tell the story. And to do that you need to find the witnesses, do the investigations and plow through the records. You need to lay foundations for evidence, build your examinations upon important points, and know what it is you need to do, and where it is you need to go.

There may be a straight line that gets you from Point A to Point B, but just as often it is otherwise, rambling around from here to there to get to where you want to go.

Telling that story usually takes time. Time that jurors, especially younger ones, may not be attuned to.

What to do about this internal conflict between today’s expectations and old-fashioned lawyering? Relish the concept when you finally get to meet your jurors. Welcome them back to another era, and another pace, when things moved slower. If you want to get the job done. (Because you have no other choice.)

Back in September, 2007,  I used an obscure quote by Mark Twain to describe the process of slowly telling the story.  Given Twain’s mastery of storytelling, I figured he would be a good source.

And so, as the world races faster and faster in making raw information available, we turn back to Twain on the art and flow of storytelling:

Narrative is a difficult art; narrative should flow as flows the brook down through the hills and the leafy woodlands, its course changed by every bowlder it comes across and by every grass-clad gravelly spur that projects into its path; its surface broken, but its course not stayed by rocks and gravel on the bottom in the shoal places; a brook that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically, and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three-quarters of a mile around, and at the end of the circuit flowing within a yard of the path it traversed an hour before; but always going, and always following at least one law, always loyal to that law, the law of narrative, which has no law. Nothing to do but make the trip; the how of it is not important, so that the trip is made.

That difference in the expectations of people also came into sharp view in the Oregon standoff, where I started this piece. There were some folks who wanted the buildings that the Bundy gang took over to be immediately stormed. Now! Now! Quicker! Faster!

The Department of Justice, however, took its sweet time. Because time was on its side. And it was a highly successful strategy.

Sometimes we need to move fast. But not always, and fast should not be the default. No matter what kind of technology comes spinning our way.

OK, cue up some Stones to close — though lord only knows what Ben Franklin would think of Mick:

 

 

 

July 15th, 2015

Professorial Malpractice (Updated)

Professor Franks, via LinkedIn

Professor Franks, via LinkedIn

Monday someone blocked me on Twitter. It’s the first time that has happened to me since I started sporadically using the service in 2009.

Me? Blocked?  What malicious and impertinent crime had I committed?

Apparently, I committed the vulgar, discourteous and insulting crime of asking a law professor for a citation, and then discussing it.  I kid you not.

As I skimmed my Twitter feed upon return back from a delightful vacation, I saw this curious tweet from Professor Mary Anne Franks about the de minimis likelihood of a rape allegation being false:

InfinitesmalNow I’m no student of rape statistics or studies for sure — it isn’t what I do, and it isn’t one of the issues I’ve routinely tackled in the 1,300+ pieces I’ve written here since 2006.

But I was curious about the comment, certainly, since it carried a presumption of guilt, which is deeply at odds with our jurisprudence. And it was also at odds with stories in the popular press about rape accusations that turned out to be either questionable or outright false.

This includes such front page stories as the Duke Lacrosse players scandal, the poorly sourced Rolling Stone article from the University of Virginia for which it apologized (A Rape on Campus), Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz who carried a mattress around campus after claiming she was raped, and the Central Park Jogger case. And, of course, there is the infamous case of the Scottsboro Boys.

But you know what the problem is with all those reports? They are not empirical evidence. While they discuss the facts of those particular cases, this means nothing for the big picture as to whether the incidence of false rape accusations is “infinitesimal,” or common, or somewhere in the vast gray area between.

While I don’t do criminal defense work, I do try civil cases, and I am aware of how stories in the popular press help to shape societal opinions (and, therefore, the jury pool). A classic example from my field is the McDonalds hot coffee case. I can’t remember the last time I picked a jury without discussing it.

The problem is that such stories are, by definition, outliers. If they weren’t outliers, they wouldn’t be on the front page where they then go on to shape public opinion.

Wanting to know the source of Professor Franks’ conclusion, I inquired with a very simple and benign citation request regarding her claim that false accusations of rape were “infinitesimal.” And with that she directed me to a Washington Post article that cited a variety of statistics, from different studies:

Cite?

While I won’t summarize the entire article — since as you will see in a moment that is not the point of this post, and you can read it if you want — the author wrote about one significant study stating that there is “a profound disagreement on what counts as a false allegation.”

Due to the problem of shifting definitions (as well as unreported rapes), you can see by the article that it’s difficult to get a real handle on the extent of the problem. In fact, the very story that Professor Franks cited to me had studies showing  false rape accusations varying between a low of 2% to a high of 45%.

The only thing that seemed to be clear about the statistics is that nothing was clear.

So I noted to Professor Franks that not only wasn’t the word “infinitesimal” part of the story, but that the very citation she gave me seemed to demonstrate otherwise:

DoesntSayThat

 

Two to 45

And she blocked me. For challenging the conclusion she reached from her very own citation. This is academia?

Now where I come from, a lawyer doesn’t make an assertion that can’t be backed up with proof. Evidence is the heart and soul of any case or argument. I get challenged on my proof all the time, and I challenge defendants on theirs. Over the course of the 30 years since I was graduated from law school, I’v become pretty confident that this is the way the system works.

The challenging of proof is what, hopefully, assists the finders of fact (be they juries or judges) to become the proverbial fly on the wall that determines what “actually happened” when one bit of evidence contradicts another.

It’s therefore routine in trials for each side to look at the opening statements of the other, and try to find some fact that they claim wasn’t proved at trial, and then pound away at this, calling it an exaggeration or falsity in an attempt to tarnish the entire case of the other side.

And that is why lawyers speak carefully in making assertions of fact, for otherwise we tarnish not only ourselves, but worse, our clients or causes.

I can’t help but wonder: What happens if a legal adversary challenges an assertion that Professor Franks makes in a motion or appeal? What happens if a judge challenges her cite? Will she stand in the well of the courtroom and try to block the judge?

And what happens when a student challenges a citation that Professor Franks gives in class? Does she block the student? Will she cover her ears and sing?

What kind of lesson does she teach her students by saying that, if a person challenges your citation, you just block them?

This post isn’t about rape. It’s about evidence. And teaching. And lawyering.

I’m reminded by this episode of an experience I had as a newbie blogger, with just months under my belt. Walter Olson at Overlawyered had written something and I posted an opposing view. So what did Olson do? He amended his post to read, And for another view, see Turkewitz. With a link.

This was the exact opposite of blocking. And it brought home to me in a heartbeat what the whole blogging thing was about. It’s about an exchange of ideas, some of which may be critical. Olson and I may butt heads on issues from time to time, but I’m indebted to him for that lesson.

And it was the subject of a post I wrote a few years ago celebrating that very fact (Twittering With the Enemy– A Blogospheric Celebration). Professor Franks would do well to take note.

A last thought. When I was a kid, I remember one of my teachers telling me that the best students were the ones that challenged their teachers with questions. This was the pool of students, he told us, from which he hoped would one day emerge a son-in-law.

Good teachers are happy when students’ minds are buzzing with inquisitiveness.  Good teachers aren’t afraid of the questions. Or the answers. Or of learning something new.

Update (7.16.15) – In exceptionally stark contrast to Professor Franks, 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski had this to say in an article that deals with his ideas (in part) on how to change the jury system:

If my proposals raise controversy and opposition, leading to a spirited debate, I will have achieved my purpose.

Now ain’t that refreshing?

———

Elsewhere, some on point, some tangential:

Professor Franks and the False Dichotomy (Jay WolmanLegal Satyricon, who was also blocked)

The ITIF’s Confusion on Free Speech and Revenge Porn (Scott Greenfield @ Simple Justice)

Professor Twitter and the Problem of the Low False Rape Narrative (Francis Walker @ Data Gone Wild)

 

 

 

March 10th, 2015

The Fainting Lawyer and the Stress of the Courtroom Well

HansPoppe

Hans Poppe, Louisville, KY

Almost two years ago I wrote of the lawyer who fainted dead away on the 10th day of a medical malpractice trial, where he was representing the patient. And the defendant doctor he’d sued then rushed forward to assist him. The story even had video.

The lawyer, Hans Poppe of Louisville, KY, was at the bench discussing the defendant’s motion for a mistrial when it happened. Poppe, it seemed, had inadvertently played an unedited version of a deposition that had a verboten discussion of medical malpractice liability insurance in it, instead of the edited version that excluded those questions.

That technoblunder resulted in a mistrial, and the insurance company, Kentuckiana Medical Reciprocal Risk Retention Group, then went after Poppe for the costs of the mistrial. The insurer sought a whopping 125K in costs and fees.

And now the issue has come to a conclusion, and hence this update.

In a decision dated February 13, 2015, Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Audra J. Eckerle supported Poppe and not the insurance company.

Why? First off, the insurance company provided no evidence that Poppe acted intentionally. How does one prove intent from mouse clicking the wrong file to play in the courtroom? By looking at both the actual evidence and mitigating circumstances.

And the judge saw that, upon realization that the wrong video had been played, and understanding the ramifications of it, she wrote that the Court saw:

“…the color pass from Poppe’s face when he realized what he had done. And, of course, it witnessed him faint when the fully gravity of his malfeasance hit him. His subsequent actions and apology seemed genuine. The Court accepts that, as well as the mitigating circumstances that Poppe has offered.”

What mitigating circumstances? This is the nuts and bolts of what it is to stand in the courtroom well, having waited years to get there, sorted through countless documents and potential exhibits, to walk the proverbial high wire without a net after enduring nights without sleep as you stress about the innumerable details of a trial:

Poppe’s misdeed occurred during the third week of a hotly disputed, highly contentious, multi-million dollar claim. Many lawyers battled. Discovery had consumed several years and several thousand documents. Witnesses and exhibits were legion. One error occurred. While it was colossal, it was singular. The Court cannot conclude, under the totality of the circumstances, that the conduct was anything other than a horrible mistake, brought on by fatigue, weariness, and exhaustion, and not by malice, egregiousness or bad faith.

That was it: one mistake. My reading of that is that Poppe’s own good reputation saved him. The matter had been contentious for sure — this was a trial after all — but he hadn’t done anything else to worry the judge.

Reputations matter. They may act, as they did here, as circumstantial evidence if that reputation was earned in front of the fact-finder.

She concluded:

Without question Poppe’s actions came at a cost to his opponents, and to himself, in a rather public and humiliating fashion. But Poppe did not impugn the integrity of the Court or undermine its authority.

The motion for sanctions was denied. And the case, by the way, settled.

 

 

June 4th, 2014

Order in the Court! (And a Judicial Brawl)

Boxing GlovesIt isn’t often you hear about a judge engaging in fisticuffs with a lawyer appearing before him. Fights may happen in the legislatures of other countries, but it just doesn’t happen in an American courtroom with a jurist. Unless, I guess, that courtroom is in Florida where this happened.

As reported in Florida Today, in an incident in Brevard County, Judge John Murphy first said if he had a rock he would throw it at the lawyer and then it went quickly downhill from there, like kids on a playground:

Murphy and assistant public defender Andrew Weinstock exchanged words in a hearing Monday morning. The exchange escalated, and video records Murphy challenging Weinstock: “If you want to fight let’s go out back and I’ll just beat your ass.”

The men disappear off camera, to a hallway behind the judge’s seat, and loud banging and cursing can be heard. The judge emerges, out of breath, but the attorney does not.

The issue was a simple criminal matter where the judge wanted the public defender to waive the right to a speedy trial. He  refused to waive and asked for a trial date.

Tempers flared with that very short interaction, the two of them charged to the back hallway,  you can hear the words “Do you want to fuck with me?”, a scuffle takes place and the web blows up with stories about it. Just Google “Judge John Murphy and Andrew Weinstock.”

Here is the short video — I found a version without commercials:

Most websites that have covered the matter have excoriated Judge Murphy — who has now taken a leave of absence for anger management classes. This is rightfully so, as no judge should be challenging a lawyer to a fight, then leaving the bench with the person challenged, and then engaging in physical contact with him (and I think I’m safe with the pronoun “him.”)

But since Judge Murphy is such easy pickings for criticism, I’d like to focus on the conduct of the lawyer.

The problem isn’t with any legal argument that he made on behalf of his client. The rule of thumb is simple: Make your argument and then listen to the judge’s ruling. If you expect to lose, it is your job to make sure that it’s all on the record for an appellate court later on.

But what you can’t do, as the lawyer did here, is be belligerent and cutting off the judge when he says “sit down.” This doesn’t help the client. Not. One. Bit. And helping the client is the only reason he is standing in the courtroom well in the first place.

One of the first things a lawyer learns about life in the well of the courtroom is that when the judge speaks, you shut your mouth and listen. Because the judge is in charge, whether you like it or not.

What’s more, when the judge uttered the now-(in)famous words, “If you want to fight let’s go out back and I’ll just beat your ass,” the lawyer charges to the door to go “out back” before the judge is even finished with his rhetorical comment. It was like he was eager to go fight with the judge, either with words or otherwise.

Or at least I presume the judge’s comment was mere rhetorical nonsense based on the tone used, and not a real threat. But whether rhetorical or not, the lawyer’s job is to decline the offer, stay put in the courtroom, and protect the record for the client.

I’ve seen plenty of angry judges in the past, though perhaps not as many as my brethren in the criminal defense bar who carry the baggage of bad apples with them. And I’ve seen plenty of angry lawyers yelling at each other in depositions and in courthouses.

My own tactic for screaming lawyers, which I’ve used several times, is to respond by simply saying, “You’re screaming.” This usually pisses them off and they get louder. Eventually they cool down when they realize they are the only ones engaged that way and making asses of themselves.

When threatened, I have simply ignored the threat and continued doing what I was doing as if it never happened. (Unless the threat relates to a response to this blog, in which case I publish it).

If a judge is out of line, it is not the job of the lawyer to fight, but to make sure it is placed on the record.

The lawyer’s job when faced with a difficult circumstance is to hand the other person the rope with which to hang themselves. And protect the record.

This lawyer fouled up. Because it isn’t about him. It’s about the client. And the record. Which most definitely is not  made in the hallway behind the bench.

Elsewhere:

Judicial thuggery: FL judge assaults public defender (A Public Defender)

The Heat of the Well (Simple Justice)

Florida Judge Allegedly Threatens Public Defender, Challenges Him To A Fight, And Then Attacks Him Outside Courtroom (Jonathan Turley)

Judge Beats Up Public Defender (Above the Law)