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Ooooohhhhh, Haunted Courthouses!!!

Posted in Truth Is Stranger Than (Legal) Fiction! on Friday October 31 2014 @ 4:56am

As longtime court-o-rama.org fans know, it is time again to explore the more paranormal aspects of our court system.

Because courtrooms are one of our best storytelling venues, it makes sense that one Canton, Michigan judge is a talented ghost story spinner. And, it is for a good cause -- the local historical society. See Canton Judge Brings His Ghost Stories to Old Barn, Darrell Clem, Hometownlife (September 28, 2014).

Useful fact: in the U.K., a person could be cited for impersonating a ghost. Judge Fines Man for Imitating Ghost in Graveyard, by Brian Abrams, Deathandtaxes (August 7, 2014).

Would ghosts qualify as jurors in a murder case? It's an interesting prospect, and one that Melissa's Best Times Good Funnys illustrates: Ghost Jury. (Unrelated, but she also draws a hee-larious Chicken Sheriff!)

Finally, no Halloween celebration would be complete without a bit of Thriller. How weird is it that Lionel Richie's former wife, Brenda, testified during the trial of Dr. Murray that Michael Jackson's ghost appeared to her and told her that he, not Dr. Murray, had accidentally killed himself. If nothing else, it poses an interesting hearsay problem: the message came to Brenda via psychic. Judge Allowed Michael Jackson's Ghost in Shocking Courtroom Testimony: Dr. Murray's Innocent!, by Michael Walsh, New York Daily News (where else?) (June 15, 2013).

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Hazardous to Miners

Posted in Civil on Monday September 08 2014 @ 7:31am

  • 76,000: Number of miners killed by black lung since 1968.

  • 7400: Number of black lung claims expected to be filed this year.

  • 17 out of 24: Number of miners killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion whose autopsies showed they suffered from black lung.

  • 429: Number of days it takes a claim to be assigned to an administrative law judge.

  • Zero: Number of black lung cases, out of over 1500, verified by a physician hired by coal companies to review applicants.

  • 100,000: Number of people killed in mining accidents over the last century.

  • $1000/month: Amount of money to which a successful beneficiary is entitled.

See Miners Battle Black Lung, and Bureaucracy, New York Times (September 7, 2014).

A wonderful resource is the Black Lung Clinic at W&L Law.

Feeling smart? Take the National Geographic Coal vs. Natural Gas Quiz.

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Public Service and the American Dream

Posted in Administration on Monday August 18 2014 @ 12:40pm

Much could be said about former Pittsburgh mayor Sophie Masloff, who died this week at age 96. She led an interesting life, and brought a unique combination of progressive politics, budget-biting, and homespun style to her post. Her malapropisms and activism made her a memorable and effective politician. She was the first woman and first Jewish person to serve as mayor of her city.

Of course, court-o-rama greatly admires her statement about her light approach: In some situations, where you have to listen to a lot of boring speeches, I can't resist the opportunity to say something silly. This is exactly what we try to do -- mix silly with smart, and hope at least one sticks.

What many might not know is that Masloff started her career in public service in the courts. According to her NYT obituary, "In 1938, she became a clerk in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. She worked there for 38 years, eventually becoming assistant chief clerk." In her seventies, she entered politics.

Public service careers fit in well with the American dream that Masloff lived. Born to Romanian immigrants, only Yiddish was spoken in her home as a child. Masloff did not learn English until she went to school. With a high school education, she became a secretary and bookkeeper. Employment in the courts was a natural progression.

It seems odd that we would highlight common sense, but it is far less common than it ought to be, and far too valuable to be taken for granted. Let's hope that the next 90 or so years brings us more people like Masloff, who used common sense to help the public good.

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Margot Adler: Planting the Seeds of Justice

Posted in Jury on Monday July 28 2014 @ 8:43pm

We were sad to hear that Margot Adler passed away.

Adler, an NPR reporter, did two great services for the legal system. The first, of course, was Justice Talking. This program was a sane option for radio listeners. It provided solid background for people seeking to understand legal issues. Rather than give yet another outlet for the loudest, shrillest voices in the room, Adler let researchers explain the topics. Thus, rather than hear screaming and shallowness, one could hear Valerie Hans talk about the right to a jury trial.

The second great thing was that some courts made podcasts of the series available to jurors during their courthouse wait. What better time to introduce this series, and to what better audience? The topics available were screened by court staff, so that they would differ from any issues a juror might be pondering for trial.

The result was a perfect cycle, legal programming that was about and for the legal system.

We did not know until hearing news about her death that Adler was Wiccan. See Margot Adler: Pagan and NPR Correspondent, Roberta Hershenson, NYCitywoman. The UU scuttlebutt is that she taught a course on neopaganism at Meadville Lombard Theological School.

While surprising, in hindsight it makes perfect sense. One Adler story that has stayed with us since we heard it was her deeply moving account, Storm Downs Beloved Trees IN Central Park, Margot Adler, All Things Considered (August 20, 2009). Again, an expert dovetailing of surroundings and story.

Radio like this is rare. Hopefully, Adler planted the seeds for better legal coverage. May that future forest thrive.

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Thank You, President Nixon

Posted in Access on Friday July 25 2014 @ 11:47am

What's older than the Federal Rules of Evidence, Wheel of Fortune, and the Betamax? The Legal Services Corporation, which turns 40 today.

Nearly 21% of the U.S. population qualifies for legal aid -- almost double the number from 1974, when only 12% met the requirements.

According to Senator Mary Landrieu, over 25% of Louisiana qualifies. These are difficult economic times, and people who never before found themselves struggling now rely on legal services to maintain fair housing, child support, and other basic needs.

Others who benefit from legal services include:

* Victims of the Oso mudslide in Washington state
* Law students who pursue public interest careers
* Innovators in the technology field, such as LawHelp Interactive
* Veterans facing foreclosure

Still, legal services is struggling mightily, as it has for decades. Rural providers are closing their doors, and urban providers are stretched to their limit. Meanwhile, LSC funding is only slightly above the all-time low. Who knew we would be pining for Nixon?

A 40th Anniversary Kick-Off will be held September 14-16 at the Omni Shoreham in Washington, DC. Who knows, maybe Richard Nixon's head will be among the guests.

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Bald, Hostile Aliens Eat Probate Court!!!!!!!!!

Posted in Probate on Thursday July 24 2014 @ 1:13pm

No, they didn't. But the entertainment world is abuzz with mundane news about wills and estates.

How did this happen? What about stars behaving badly? What about new summer blockbusters? Is everyone at TMZ studying for the bar? (Fun fact: the founder of TMZ has a law degree.)

The so-called news about Philip Seymour Hoffman leaving his estate to his partner is the simplest legal problem ever. See, e.g., Philip Seymour Hoffman Didn't Want Trust Fund Kids, Filing Says, Christie D'Zurilla, L.A. Times (July 21.2014).

The spouse (or, here, longtime companion, but still mother of his children) takes, unless there is a step-parent, in which case the step-parent shares with the surviving children. This handy National Paralegal College guide to Intestate Succession Rules makes the process easy to understand. You don't even need a will to accomplish this.

Simple? Utterly. Rare? Not at all. Newsworthy? Perhaps, in that Hoffman was a famous actor who died before his time, but not because he did anything unusual with his will. Startling headline? Nope! The media might just as well have proclaimed, Philip Seymour Hoffman Ate Breakfast Daily, While Alive!

So what have we learned? Entertainment news just made a big deal out of an everyday legal issue. Because the topic is wills, something everyone will have to deal with some day, it could have been informative. Rather, the trending story has people thinking that leaving your estate to your spouse is some kind of probate circus trick.

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Holiday Reading

Posted in Hype on Friday July 04 2014 @ 5:35pm


Constitution of the United States.

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I Hope A Gerrymander Falls On You

Posted in Elections on Tuesday June 10 2014 @ 9:04pm

I thought you said she was dead!
That was her sister, the Wicked Witch of the East. She's worse than the other one!

Before you go celebrating the demise of Eric Cantor's career, consider what happened here: he was regarded as too leftist for voters. That's right: too left.

How did he lose? His opponent created or took advantage of the perfect twister. Thanks to wonky friends in high places (namely Bill Raftery and Roger Hartley), we can sum it up as follows:

Passion over paper. Opponent Brat's people pounded the pavement and knocked on doors, creating a groundswell of support. Meanwhile, Cantor played it old school, sending flyers via snail mail. Which do you suppose was more effective? People vote with their hearts, not with their heads. As Bill says, Passion and commitment beat out money.

Labels. Brat labeled Cantor as a left-wing Obama-loving candidate. The label stuck. This may not make sense to some of you, but let me explain. In some circles, anyone who voted to reopen the government was siding with Obama. (One label that didn't stick -- Cantor's attempt to label Brat as a liberal professor. All professors are liberal, right?)

So-Called Amnesty. Immigration is a hot topic for people, particularly those who feel (rightly or wrongly) disenfranchised for whatever reason. For example, it is a popular idea that immigrants are here for the FREE MONEY. (Apparently, they give FREE MONEY to people who travel extraordinarily long distances to work in poultry plants.) Supporting that long and somewhat illusory Path to Citizenship was a factor, although not *the* deciding factor, in Cantor's loss. (As for what that means for future support of immigration reform, see Why Did Cantor Lose? Not Easy to Explain, Nate Cohn, June 10, 2014.)

Gerrymandering. What happens when a diabolical plan is a little TOO successful? See: GOP gerrymandering in the Commonwealth. Surround yourself with the most die-hard, rightward population, and the Tea Party is guaranteed a seat. Hartley says, The GOP has imprisoned themselves into districts they will not be able to escape from. For more insight and several nifty visual aides, see America's Most Gerrymandered Congressional Districts, Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post (May 16, 2014).

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To Read

Posted in Criminal on Saturday March 15 2014 @ 8:27am

The new New York Review of Books is in, and as usual there is so much to see. We are going to focus on the ads -- yes, the squillions of book ads, all of which look good but some of which may be particularly interesting to court-o-ramans:


This list is not exhaustive! Happy reading!

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The Five Percent

Posted in Criminal on Tuesday March 04 2014 @ 11:55am


What is cruel and unusual for the purposes of the Eighth Amendment? The U.S. Supreme Court held, in Atkins v. Virginia, that executing mentally retarded defendants amounted to cruel and unusual (again with capacity!), and was thus unconstitutional. What that decision left out, however, was what was meant by mentally retarded or intellectual disability.

States established criteria in their crazy patchwork way. As one can imagine, the results are not uniform. The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) compiled a state-by-state list of definitions.

Many states require a particular IQ -- usually around 70. But what about statistical deviation? IQ tests are only so accurate (and, some might argue, not very). Florida requires a 70. IQ is usually determined as a score, plus or minus 5. So, what of those plus-or-minus-5 group? One death row inmate in Florida is seeking reprieve due to his raw score of 71. See Supreme Court to Revisit IQ Rule in Death-Penalty Cases, Jess Bravin, Wall Street Journal (March 2, 2014). See also Hall v. Florida: Florida's Attempt to Limit Atkins' Constitutional Protection, John H. Blume, American Constitution Society (February 20, 2014).

See the SCOTUSblog resources on Hall v. Florida for more.

How could an outcome for Hall affect states in the future? See the DPIC's States That Have Changed Their Statutes to Comply With the Supreme Court's Decision in Atkins v. Virginia. If the Court finds for Hall, expect a similar update incorporating language and guidance from the opinion.

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