The Legal Advocate

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Monthly Archives: June 2017

NITA Movie Review: Greedy Cousins, A Fight for Autonomy, and a Really Big Rabbit

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

Sometimes we forget all the areas where trial lawyers work. In Denver, where I am, our stand-alone Probate Court handle cases as varied as mental health proceedings and estate matters. This month we’ll focus on films that fall within that court’s purview. I’ve deliberately chosen to leave out movies that I’ve written about before, like Miracle on 34th Street (where Santa Claus goes on trial for “lunacy”) as well as movies featuring really crazy people (like Psycho.) Instead, I’ve picked a black comedy about an inheritance battle, a drama about a fight over competency, and a wonderful movie about a man whose best friend is a six-foot three-and-a-half inch tall invisible rabbit.

The Wrong Box (1966, Columbia Pictures) is a British comedy that centers on the attempts of two scallywags to collect the proceeds of a tontine. A tontine was a sort of investment scheme used in the past. The members of a tontine placed a certain sum of money in an account, with the last surviving member inheriting the entire amount, plus years of interest, far off in the future (hopefully.) The winner’s relatives, of course, stood to profit thereafter. The potential for mischief should be obvious.

In the movie, the last two potential survivors who could inherit the tontine are Masterman Finsbury (played by a true giant of British acting, Sir Ralph Richardson) and his brother Joseph (played by the almost-as great Sir John Mills.) Joseph has two scheming nephews (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) who want to eliminate Masterman so that Joseph gets the proceeds of the tontine, followed (in short order) by the two nephews. Masterman’s only heir is his somewhat dim grandson, Michael (played by Michael Kane.) To describe the plot of this film would take more pages than these reviews are supposed to cover, but it involves (among other things) several murder plots, a train wreck, a misidentified corpse, a corpse stashed in a barrel, a corpse stashed in a piano, the mis-delivery of coffins — and a love story between Michael and Joseph’s prim and proper, but Victorian-ly repressed niece, (Nannette Newman.)

I’ve always found The Wrong Box hilarious and I think you will, too. It shows, in a farcical way, the ends to which people will go to secure what they believe to be their rightful inheritance. Courts and lawyers handling estate matters with real-life fights like this all the time.

Next, I present Nuts (1987, Warner Brothers), starring Barbara Streisand as Claudia Draper, a call girl who kills a client, according to her, in self-defense. Because of her erratic behavior, Claudia is confined at Bellevue, where she is examined by a psychiatrist, Dr. Morrison (Eli Wallach), who believes Claudia is incompetent to stand trial. Her parents (Karl Malden, Maureen Stapleton), fearful of a scandal, support this finding, because it would allow their daughter to be tucked away quietly in a mental institution. The parents hire a lawyer for their daughter, but the lawyer is in league with the parents and the psychiatrist. But at a competency hearing, Claudia strikes a blow for herself (literally) and the judge appoints a public defender, Aaron Levinsky (Richard Dreyfuss) to represent her. Claudia insists that she has a right to decide her fate, and that whatever mental illness she may have doesn’t deprive her of that right. The courtroom scenes are jarring and the end result of Claudia’s fight is never sure.

Nuts has several aspects that make it worth watching for those of us in “the system.” For lawyers, there’s the issue of how you interact with a client who even her own counsel describes as “a real pain in the ass.” For judges, there’s the fine line between the right of a defendant to make their own decisions and whether someone is actually so mentally ill that they cannot make decisions for themselves. And, throughout the film, there’s the philosophical question of whether or when the law should require that someone be treated for mental illness if that person doesn’t want to be treated or doesn’t believe they should be[1]. These are important questions not just for the law, but for society as a whole.

And last, but definitely not least, we come to Harvey (1950, Universal) a wonderful comedy starring James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd, a kind and gentle man, whose best friend is a pooka – an Irish spirit, in Elwood’s case is a six-foot three-and-a-half inch tall[2] invisible rabbit named Harvey. Of course, no one else can see Harvey and because Elwood likes to take more than a few drinks, spending much of his time at Charlie’s, Elwood’s (and Harvey’s) favorite local bar. His strait-laced relatives are sure that Elwood is both an alcoholic and certifiably crazy. Elwood is also perceived as an embarrassment to his family, who are convinced that he affects their social position and even the ability of his niece to marry well. An attempt is made to have Dowd committed, even enlisting the help of the local judge, but the attempt goes awry, as these things do in Hollywood. The head of the sanatorium proposes treatment with a secret formula that will keep Elwood from ever seeing Harvey again. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but rest assured that Elwood does not end up as “just a normal human being.”

Harvey is simply a warm, sympathetic portrait of a man who is either harmless eccentric or someone who’s mentally ill – or both. Stewart was nominated for Best Actor and Josephine Hull, who played Elwood’s frazzled sister Veta, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress Oscar[3]. The movie shows up a lot on TV and is one you shouldn’t miss. It’s also suitable for watching by and with kids, which neither The Wrong Box nor Nuts is.

Kudos to those who labor in the probate, estate and mental health fields!

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[1] Many judges have been faced with the issue of involuntary medication of persons receiving treatment in state facilities. Colorado’s statute can be found at C.R.S 1973, Section 26-65-118.
[1] The script always refers to Harvey as being 6’3-1/2” tall, but Stewart, who was 6’4” played it as if Harvey were 6’8” tall, so Stewart was always looking up to talk to Harvey.
[1] Ms. Hull appeared in another movie about slightly doty old folks in 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace.

Give to the NITA Foundation this Quarter

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When you give to the NITA Foundation, 100 percent of every dollar you donate is spent on the mission work that fulfills our goal of including public service lawyers in those who benefit from NITA’s training. As this quarter comes to a close next week, we’d love to count on your support of the NITA Foundation and its important work of awarding scholarship assistance and creating programs for applicants working in careers that meet our public service attorney training objectives. This work is impossible without help from loyal donors like you.

Since 2003, the NITA Foundation has disbursed over $3.3 million in support of our programs and scholarships. There are so many ways to give—cash donations, memorial or honorary gifts, stock donations, planned giving, and even donations of your NITA teaching proceeds or NITA book royalties—and each way helps us award program scholarships to public services lawyers, provide NITA training programs in the public sector, defray travel expenses for program participants, and ensure the rule of law and access to justice in emerging democracies through our international programs. Visit www.nita.org/donate to make a secure online gift and learn more about how you can help.

Southern University Law Center and NITA Public Service Program

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For the second year in a row, NITA and the Southern University Law Center (SULC) joined together to offer a public service program for legal service attorneys. This deposition skills program was held May 15-17 in Baton Rouge, LA for 47 attorneys. Program Director, Stephanie Ledesma, who taught at the program last year, brought her knowledge of advocacy to this year’s program once again.

At the conclusion of the program Ledesma said, “I am honored and blessed to work with an organization, NITA, that understands the importance of giving. Public service attorneys are critical to the fabric of our nation; and public service attorneys are so grateful and appreciative for the opportunity to perfect their skills for the benefit of their clients. Participating in public service programs is one way that I serve the community that serves an even larger community.”

Furthermore, Chancellor of Southern University Law Center, John Pierre, who has been instrumental in working with NITA on both this program, and last year’s program, has stated the deposition public service program conducted this year was an excellent program that provided superb training to the participants. In addition, Pierre claims the participants remained highly engaged during the program and the quality of the NITA model of “learning-by-doing” was fantastic.

Some of the skills taught during this program included: introduction to depositions, gathering information, witness preparation, exhibits, and much more. The intensive training was not only well-received by Ledesma and Pierre, but the participants of the program also spoke highly of the training. As one participant stated, “The program was very organized and straight to the point. I enjoyed the hands on activities and learned some great strategies to conduct a successful deposition.”

NITA Gives Back: Volunteering at Three Leaf Farm

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As part of NITA’s mission to be public servants and give back to our community, the employees at NITA Central in Boulder, CO decided to take a trip on South Boulder Road to the self-sustaining and environmentally conscious, Three Leaf Farm for some good-old-fashioned farm work.

Upon arrival we were greeted by owner Sara Martinelli who gave us a tour of the farm. Martinelli also informed us of their monthly dinners which are hosted at the farm where they can bring their organic produce to their menus for guests to enjoy. Martinelli said the dinners are a very popular event for visitors.

Now it was time to get down to business: once we split into small groups, we engaged in activities such as seeding, planting flowers, working on trails, and weeding. With 15 volunteers from NITA , we were able to get many of these activities accomplished during our 2-hour time frame. One NITA employee, Vanessa Munzert said, “I had an amazing time getting my hands dirty – I never thought pulling weeds would be so fun. But seeing all the animals (especially the babies) was my favorite part!”

Similarly, NITA employee, Alicia Branch said, “I had a great time at Three Leaf Farm – getting dirty, sunburned and blistered hands as it reminded me of my summers helping on my grandparent’s farm as a kid.”

We finished up the day with a picnic lunch at the farm before heading out. Overall, it was a great day spent outdoors in which we were able to all pitch in and help Martinelli and her team. Thanks to Three Leaf Farm for a great experience!

Reflections on the Cosby Hung Jury

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by guest blogger Melissa M. Gomez

[Photo attribution: World Affairs Council of Philadelphia [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]

What causes a hung jury? In criminal cases, everyone on the panel has to agree for a verdict to be reached. When there is disagreement, jurors need to discuss and debate their different perspectives. While diverse perspectives typically make for more thorough discussion and review of the evidence, they can also be very frustrating for a jury. While the hope is that thorough discussions lead jurors to come together to a consensus, they sometimes have the opposite effect, and make jury members more entrenched in their diverse positions.

In the case of Bill Cosby, jurors could and likely did become polarized emotionally. One reason could have been their perception of Cosby’s public image. Is he America’s favorite dad who could never do such a thing? Is he a predator who deceived the public by pretending to be a champion of family values and strong women? Another reason could be a juror’s perspective on women’s rights and sexualization. And yet another reason could be a perspective that high-profile people abuse their power and influence. Polarized positions such as these can lead to a lot of difficulty coming to a consensus. They represent strong values that are hard to bend.

Moreover, when there is disagreement on a panel, jurors tend to compromise. For example, when there are both felony and misdemeanor charges to decide, a jury that disagrees may compromise on the lesser charge. For Cosby, there was nowhere to compromise. All of the charges were felonies.

Of course, all of these issues were exacerbated by the jurors’ knowledge that the country is watching and that their verdict is going to have a life-altering effect on a celebrity who was once beloved. They wanted to get the decision right. And because they had different ideas of what was right, they weren’t going to get a decision at all.

Nationally known jury consultant and the President of MMG Jury Consulting, LLC, Dr. Melissa M. Gomez holds a PhD in Psychology and a Master of Science in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. She has worked on over 500 jury trials across the United States with a focus on the psychology of learning, behavior, and decision-making. She is the author of Jury Trials Outside In: Leveraging Psychology from Discovery to Decision, published by NITA.

NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system.

NITA’s Goals are to:

  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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