Blogs > The Law Blogger

The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Bloggers Test Anti-SLAPP Law in Defamation Suit

Shirley Sherrod
There is a case pending in Washington, D.C. that involves the intersection of blogging and defamation and tests D.C.'s brand new anti-SLAPP law.  SLAPP stands for "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation" -these injunctive laws are designed to provide defamation defendants immediate substantive protections against meritless libel suits -suits filed solely to silence a particular voice.

We all recall when former federal employee Shirley Sherrod had a video of her public comments edited and blog-posted by the recently-deceased conservative blogger, Andrew Breitbart.  The [deceptively] edited video made Sherrod, then a USDA official, look like she was making publicly racist comments about a white farmer seeking USDA assistance to save his farm from foreclosure.

In fact, Sherrod's un-edited statement showed she was telling a story from her past to illustrate the possibility of racial reconciliation.  The truth came out too late, however, to save Sherrod's job at the USDA.  And when it finally did come out, Sherrod rejected the Obama Administration's public apology-laced offer of re-employment.

Instead, she sued Breitbart and his assistant in the District of Colombia Superior Court for defamation; the defendants removed the case to federal court.  Sherrod claimed that the video intentionally and deceptively altered her public comments, causing her loss of employment and stress that has now affected her health.

The defendant-bloggers claimed they were merely expressing a political opinion through posting the edited video and filed a motion to dismiss the suit on anti-SLAPP grounds.  The motion was denied by the trial judge and oral arguments on the appeal were heard by the United States District Court for the District of Colombia last month.

A decision in the case is expected soon.

We here at the Law Blogger await this decision to see how the D.C. anti-SLAPP legislation fares in one of the first, and certainly most high profile, cases to test the law governing free speech through blogging, and its limits, in our nation's capital.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

300th Blog Post - Thank You Readers

We here at the Law Blogger [the attorneys of Clarkston Legal, also known as Karlstrom Cooney] would like to thank our loyal readers and those that follow this blog.

This is our 300th post.  Three hundred: a perfect game in bowling; an excellent batting average in the bigs; the length of Noah's Arc, in cubits, and one of this blogger's favorite movies.

We started this blog with our first post back on March 30, 2009, on the topic of a lesbian couple litigating their right to adopt a child here in Michigan.

In the four years that we've been up and running with the Oakland Press, there have been almost 160,000 page views and we've received 438 published comments.  Minor league stats in the overall blogosphere, but hopefully relevant to our local readers.

In these years we have attempted to post interesting law-related information that our readers find useful and informative.  Some of the more important topics we've covered in our posts include:
  • cell phone use and texting while driving, especially where teenagers are concerned;
  • the "Superdrunk" driving law;
  • same-sex marriage cases from their initial filings through the recent oral arguments at SCOTUS;
  • privacy laws in the Big Data era;
  • Second Amendment cases at SCOTUS;
  • Obamacare at SCOTUS and now that the new laws are scheduled to take effect in the workplace;
  • divorce and family law developments, especially child custody matters;
  • the juvenile lifer laws recently decided by SCOTUS;
  • significant developments in the criminal law; and
  • occasionally, high-profile cases and local personalities that have intersected with the legal system or criminal justice system.
Before we begin work on our next 300 posts, we would like to also thank the Oakland Press and its editorial staff for their support and encouragement over the years.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Michigan Supreme Court Considers Family Court Judge's Lack of Candor

Wayne Circuit Family Court Judge Deborah Ross Adams
Truly, divorce is Hell.  No one can attest to this more directly than embattled Wayne County Family Court Judge Deborah Ross Adams.

After 3-years of her own gruelling divorce proceeding [understandably transferred from Wayne County to the Oakland County Family Court] during which Judge Adams ducked media-scrutiny of the disintegration of her 30-plus year marriage, the good Judge really hit the jackpot when her attempts to "right a wrong" at the midnight hour of her divorce went totally awry.

The divorce case went awry due to Judge Adams' own self-defeating and over-reaching conduct.  Both the Judicial Tenure Commission and a Special Master appointed by the Michigan Supreme Court found earlier this year that Judge Adams lied to the judge presiding over her divorce proceedings and signed her former attorney's name to a  petition without his permission, recommending a 180-day suspension without pay.

The appellate lawyer for the Judicial Tenure Commission even went beyond the recommended 180-day suspension, asserting in oral arguments before the Michigan Supreme Court that because Judge Adams has such little respect for the truth, that because she willfully misled a tribunal and jurist [i.e. Oakland Circuit Judge Mary Ellen Brennan] in open court, she did not deserve her elected seat on the Wayne County Family Court.

For his part, our friend Cyril Hall had his hands full on behalf of Judge Adams during the High Court oral arguments.  Mr. Hall emphasized his client's exemplary judicial record while downplaying the materiality of her one-time lies under Oath during a pro-confesso divorce proceeding.

Justices Robert Young and Stephen Markman pressed Mr. Hall on the importance of truth within a judicial proceeding, no matter how perfunctory, and queried whether his client was perhaps held to a higher standard, being herself a family court jurist facing a similar docket as Judge Brennan here in Oakland County.

Justice Markman, in particular, asked Cyril to "fill-in-the-blank" for the following statement:
This Court [Supreme Court] preserves the integrity of the judiciary, and maintains public trust in that judiciary, by allowing a judge to remain on the bench despite having testified falsely under oath, because...[why?].
Mr. Hall simply did not have a good answer for Justice Markman.

Having listened to the oral arguments, we here at the Law Blogger predict that the Supreme Court will uphold the Judicial Tenure Commission's recommended suspension, but will decline the request of the JTC's attorney to remove Judge Adams from the Wayne County bench.  Even Justice Young noted that this requested sanction exceeded the appellate attorney's own client's recommendation.

Hopefully for the family law litigants that will appear before Judge Adams in the upcoming years, assuming she survives this personal and professional setback and retakes her position on the Wayne Circuit's Family Court, she will have learned a valuable bedrock lesson upon which our entire legal structure is based: the truth matters in any and all judicial proceedings.

Post Script:  Judge Adams was removed as a judge by the Michigan Supreme Court's decision.  In August 2013, Governor Snyder appointed Bodman attorney Charles Hegarty to fill this judicial vacancy.

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Michigan Legislature Looking to Ban Open-Carry in Schools

There is a little-known loophole in our gun laws that allows a person that has a concealed pistol license (CPL) to openly carry a firearm into a school, provided the weapon is visibly holstered.  Given recent headlines, State Representative Andy Schor, (D Lansing), is attempting to close this loophole with House Bill 4104.

Hopefully, these terrible headlines will render the state gun lobby ineffective, and HB 4104 gets passed and signed by Governor Rick Snyder.  Who could forget last December when the Governor, on the eve of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting, was poised to sign gun legislation that would have broadened and strengthened weapon possession laws, but had a change-of-heart and vetoed the bill.

The open-carry in schools exception came crashing into the media headlights last February when Nicholas Looman, a CPL holder, open carried his pistol into an elementary school in Grand Rapids in order to vote in an election.  He was allowed to vote, then escorted off school grounds and later briefly detained.

Obviously, the 25-year old was looking to make a point.  In the end, the Kent County Prosecutor took a pass on prosecuting Looman, saying he technically complied with state law.  A CPL holder can open-carry a weapon in a public school, day care center or public hospital provided the weapon is visible.

With the recent national headlines as a backdrop, the gun debate has been renewed in Lansing.  Schor's proposed legislation is competing with a senate proposal sponsored by Senator Mike Green (R-Mayville).  It was Senator Green's bill (vetoed SB 59, which now has been re-introduced as SB 112) that was sitting on Governor Snyder's desk when the Newtown shootings broke-out.

We here at the Law Blogger cannot help but conclude that when we enter certain public places, such as schools, day care centers and hospitals, we just need to leave our guns at home.  Along these lines, we hope that Representative Schor's bill will pass the Legislature and be signed by Governor Snyder, and that Senator Green and company goes away.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Date Rape and Statutory Rape Plea Bargains

Around the turn of the century, Michigan's so-called "rape" laws underwent a sea-change.  The Legislature re-wrote the law of sexual assaults into what is now classified as "criminal sexual conduct" [CSC].

There are numerous facets to this law, including the ages of the accused and the victim; their relationship; the use of force; and many other factors.  Once convicted under the CSC statutes, a defendant then faces the onerous registration requirements under the Sex Offender Registration Act.

Recently, our law firm was involved in two CSC cases that were headed for jury trials; one in Genesee County and one in Oakland County.  Each case resolved with plea agreements that preserved our clients' freedoms, but also included punishments that were justified under the circumstances.

The case in Genesee County involved date rape and resolved with hard-bargained plea and sentencing agreements that reduced the degree of the charges from CSC 3rd to CSC 4th.  The sentencing agreement featured a no-jail guarantee.  The only way these agreements were reached was because our lawyers were prepared to try the case; and the accused had a good defense.

Our Oakland County case was not as strong.  The accused wanted to utilize a defense that his young victim looked years older than she actually was.  When a victim is between the ages of 13 and 16, however, the Michigan Supreme Court long-ago held that an accused's reasonable mistake in the age of the victim is not a defense.

In fact, this defendant had no defense, even though no force was used and the evidence showed that the young victim pursued the relationship with the accused and "consented" to sexual contact.  If convicted, he also missed the 4-year "Romeo and Juliet" age-gap that would have afforded him the opportunity to convince the judge that he should not be placed on the sex-offender registry.

Between our client's willingness to push the matter to trial, the reasonable approach of the judge, the open-mindedness of the prosecutor to resolve the matter short of trial and, perhaps most importantly, the victim and her family's unwillingness to take the matter to trial, our client was offered a no-prison guarantee on his sentence, with any jail term suspended on condition he successfully completed probation.  A very good result under such tough circumstances.

Sexual assaults are horrible crimes that, when reported, often make the victim pay.  They frequently go to trial.  Most often, such cases become an exercise in damage control.

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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act Provides More Protections for More People

President Obama signing the Act.
The Violence Against Women Act, originally passed in 1994, was enacted to protect the abuse victims (both men and women) of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. The original Act passed in 1994 created a National Domestic Violence Hotline, funded shelters that helped abuse victims, funded prosecution efforts, and increased the penalties for abusers.

Reauthorized in 2000 and again in 2005, the Act recently lapsed in 2011. Reauthorization has been stalled in the Legislature due to partisan politics and disagreement over language that would expand protections to immigrants, Native Americans, and the LGBT community.

The House of Representatives finally passed the bill in early 2013 and in March President Obama signed the Act into law, reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act which again provides protections for victims of abuse. 

Here are some of the additions and expansions associated with the new reauthorization:
  • Native American tribes now have the power to prosecute sexual abuse crimes against non-Native Americans. Previously, non-Native Americans who committed acts of abuse against Native Americans were, for all intents and purposes, immune from prosecution because tribal police could not arrest non-Native Americans and neighboring police could not make arrests on Tribal Reservations.  Now Native Americans who are assaulted on reservations can take their claims to the tribal police for prosecution. This is especially important as statistics have shown that Native American women are more than twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than non-Native women.
  • Federal funding may now be used for domestic assault, sexual assault and stalking related services geared at protecting gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender citizens. The new Act includes a non-discrimination provision that prohibits the denial of services based upon race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or disability. The services and protections for domestic violence victims can now be extended to those people in same-sex relationships.
  • Undocumented immigrants can now seek temporary visas for the purpose of prosecuting their abusers.  In the past, there have been issues with undocumented immigrants not reporting instances of abuse due to the fear of being deported.  This expansion of the Act now provides a means for undocumented immigrants to pursue justice against their abusers rather than simply taking the abuse.
  • Additional updates to the Act include sections which address our ever-advancing technology, including provisions to protect against spyware and video surveillance.
     The Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act reinstates much needed protections for the victims of abuse, both men and women. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, around 1.3 million women are assaulted by a partner every year. The law authorizes $659 million dollars over the next five years to fund the programs, shelters, and hotlines necessary in combatting domestic violence, sexual abuse, and stalking.  If you are the victim of abuse, you can call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline 24 hours a day at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

You Get What You Pay For With Divorce Lawyers

Over the past several years, we here at the Law Blogger have noted several catchy marketing schemes involving divorce lawyers, especially from New York.  These schemes involve a bait and switch by promising a quick result for cheap, or just offering a divorce for an impossibly low fee.

Key word: impossible; at least in most cases. 

The first campaign we noted was touted in Manhattan as the "one-hour-divorce" for about $500.  For the low fee, clients meet with a paralegal and lawyer at the NYC firm to provide their personal information.  The details of their settlement are also, briefly, discussed.

The clients are next provided a ten dollar gift certificate to either McDonald's or Starbucks to burn-up the last hour of their ill-fated marriage while the law office prepares the canned document package for a "one-size-fits-all" divorce.

You cannot have issues, however, or it will cost you extra. The basic premise is that the divorce has to be absolutely 100% "pro confesso" (i.e. uncontested). Basic input is collected from the client and a set of pleadings are prepared within the alotted hour. A standard judgment is generated and executed for entry and filing with the court at the appropriate time, usually six months.

Hopefully nothing changes during the statutory wait period, or all bets are off. Also, under general rules of legal ethics, the firm could not represent both parties to the divorce; but they've apparently figured out which one is their "client".

If the divorcing couple has children, property, or needs support, these issues can be handled in an hour; but will cost more than double. A Prenuptial agreement would all but disqualify the client from the discount program, although a "conventional" divorce would still be available.

Not to be outdone, there is a storefront in Brooklyn that has a sign advertising divorce for $399.  It turns out that this storefront is not a law firm, but rather the office of a paralegal that merely acts as a scrivener for the divorce forms required by New York state laws. 

For the stated fee, the paralegals will assist you in the completion and filing of the forms which are then filed with the court.  Then, it's "up to the judge".  Translation: you are on your own.

This advertised fee is also a classic bait and switch.  Not only are there extra fees for just about everything, you also need to pay filing costs and court fees. 

Apparently, the idea behind the sign is to get you in the door for the advertised low fee.  Once inside, then you learn that you, like 99% of the rest of the population, do not qualify for the low fee, but for a few hundred more bucks, they will take care of you.

It is "buyer beware" for these outfits for sure.

Here in Oakland County, we here at the Law Blogger and at Clarkston Legal, believe that the most important asset of any divorce lawyer is their reputation.  If the attorney is experienced and gets good results, it will be reflected in their fees.

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