Friday, August 14, 2015

Demuth v. County of Los Angeles (9th Cir. - Aug. 14, 2015)

Sometimes Judge Kozinski publishes an opinion principally to shame the parties.

Like here.

Most of the case gets resolved in an accompanying unpublished memorandum disposition.  But Judge Kozinski wants to make sure to publicize both the facts of the case as well as the panel's reaction thereto.  So he writes and publishes a brief synopsis of what transpired.

I'll adopt the same course, and merely quote from the opinion:

"This story begins in Los Angeles’s Los Padrinos Juvenile Courthouse. Florentina Demuth, a public defender, arrived shortly after 8:30 a.m. She had a hearing for one of her clients that day, though it wasn’t set for a specific time. Around 9:00 a.m., she had a brief conversation with Heidi Shirley, who was the presiding referee in Demuth’s case. Demuth also had a conversation with opposing counsel in which Demuth indicated that she didn’t intend to return to court until approximately 1:30 p.m. Demuth then left to work in her office, which was located in a different part of the building. A short while later, Referee Shirley asked Li, the sheriff’s deputy on duty in her courtroom, to page Demuth over the court’s intercom. Deputy Li paged Demuth several times. Demuth heard at least one page, but she didn’t respond. Deputy Li also telephoned Demuth’s direct line. Demuth heard her direct line ringing, but she didn’t answer.

This was not unusual. Lawyers, especially public defenders, were often absent from the courtroom when their case was called, and it typically took some time—and a few pages—to get them there. While she was being paged, Demuth was with her supervisor, Patricia De La Guerra Jones, who had instructed Demuth to finish an assignment before returning to court.

Referee Shirley was eager to hear the case of Demuth’s client. She had approximately 53 cases on her calendar to hear before 2:00 p.m., and the deadline to hear the case of Demuth’s client was that day. Around 9:45 a.m., Referee Shirley made the following statement: “Alright, I order Ms. Demuth to come to this courtroom. If she refuses, then Ms. De La Guerra Jones will have to come in and explain to me why this is happening.” Li found Demuth in her office suite talking to De La Guerra Jones. Li told Demuth several times that she had been called byReferee Shirley, to which Demuth responded “just a minute,” or something to that effect. After some back and forth, Li raised his voice and demanded that Demuth come immediately. Demuth responded that “[i]f you want me to come right now, you’ll have to arrest me.” Li then did just that: He put Demuth in handcuffs and escorted her to Referee Shirley’s courtroom, where he removed the handcuffs. The arrest lasted some 11 minutes.

Demuth sued Li and the County of Los Angeles under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and a variety of state law theories. . . ."

I must say that I was surprised to hear that attorneys routinely absent themselves from proceedings and don't come to the courtroom even when paged by the judge.  Or even pick up their phone.  Especially when, as here, the attorney is extremely young, and hasn't even been a lawyer for five years.

But clearly I'm not used to juvenile court.  Thankfully.

The panel quickly holds that the deputy had no probable cause to arrest Ms. Demuth, and wasn't protected by qualified immunity either.

But Judge Kozinski saves the central point of his opinion for the last paragraph.  Which reads:

"No one in this case has covered himself with glory: not the lawyer whose lackadaisical response to a judicial summons and disrespectful retort to a fellow court officer set off this unfortunate chain of events; not the supervisor who did not urge the lawyer to comply promptly with the deputy’s repeated requests that she come to court or admonish her for her tart response to the deputy; not the deputy who took the bait and abused his power; not the judges of the Los Padrinos Juvenile Court, who, doubtless aware of the incident, failed to mediate a minor dispute among court officers and allowed it to metastasize into a federal case. What seems to be at stake here is little more than wounded pride, as any damages suffered by the plaintiff seem hardly more than nominal. The dispute should have been resolved by an admission that the deputy violated Demuth’s constitutional rights, followed by mutual apologies and a handshake, saving the taxpayers of Los Angeles County the considerable costs of litigating this tiff."

I agree.

P.S. - For those who think the Socratic method in law school is unnecessary (or unusually harsh), check out the video of the oral argument in this case.  It's not mean.  But it's incredibly probing.  Question after question and hypotheticals galore.  Just like law school.  But with three (smart) law professors grilling you instead of just one.  For 45 minutes straight, no less.