Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey
Having recently rotated out of a domestic relations division and back into a civil division, I thought that this month’s review ought to focus on a movie involving civil litigation – so naturally I picked A Civil Action (Buena Vista Pictures, 1998), another movie “based on a true story.” I’d forgotten some of what made the movie memorable, but after watching the whole film on YouTube, I remembered that the movie has much to recommend it, not the least how it shows the way that litigation can be stacked in favor of the party with the most resources – and how a lawyer’s “standing on principle” may not be the best resolution for the lawyer’s client.
Jon Travolta plays real-life lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, who takes on a toxic tort case for clients living in Woburn, Massachusetts, a town with high rates of cancer, illness and even death that the clients – and eventually Schlichtmann – are caused by pollution of the town’s water supply by tanneries owned by corporate giants Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace and Co. Schlichtmann, assisted by other lawyers, files a class action lawsuit, seeking a big dollar payout and an apology for his clients. But things go wrong, very wrong. The Defendants hire high-powered lawyers, especially Beatrice’s lawyer, Jerry Facher, played by Robert Duvall. It becomes obvious that Defendants’ lawyers have Schlichtmann and his cohorts seriously outgunned, both in their ability as lawyers and by the vastly superior monetary resources the Defendants can bring to bear. Schlichtmann and the other lawyers on the Plaintiffs’ side have to keep advancing costs to keep the case alive; the Plaintiffs’ lawyers mortgage their homes, cash out retirement accounts and borrow money, but it’s never enough. Schlichtmann and his clients get unfavorable rulings from the trial judge (John Lithgow) yet turn down a huge settlement offer. The Plaintiffs take the case to trial and the result isn’t what they either want or need. Schlichtmann ends up a broken man, in bankruptcy court.
A Civil Action is well-thought of. In the ABA’s 2008 list of Twenty Five Greatest Legal Movies, it’s ranked 22nd. In another ABA poll taken in 2015, it was voted one of the three best legal movies of the decade 1995 – 2004. Robert Duvall was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar; Marlon Brando turned down the part of Jerry Facher.
But the movie ultimately may make you uncomfortable. The justice is all on one side of the case; the financial muscle and resources are all on the other side. Schlichtmann goes into court and during the trial makes some fundamental errors in presentation and preparation. He wants to fight for principle and in doing so destroys himself and his fellow lawyers, while leaving his clients with little real relief. He focuses on a single, specific outcome and blindly pursues it without thinking through what will happen if that result is not achieved. In the end, he demonstrates the accuracy of something Facher says to a law school class, from which I took the title of this review: “Now the single greatest liability a lawyer can have is pride. Pride… Pride has lost more cases than lousy evidence, idiot witnesses and a hanging judge all put together. There is absolutely no place in a courtroom for pride.” I have told my students at DU Law School something similar for years.
Many of us have heard Mark Caldwell tell program participants that a lawyer must be the client’s voice. What goes on in a courtroom must always be about the litigants first and foremost. When lawyers – and judges – forget that and put their egos ahead of the just resolution of the case that needs deciding, the legal system fails us all.
NITA is proud to announce the most recent recipients of the Advocate and Master Advocate Designations. These designations are awarded to a person who has taken a well-rounded set of courses, proving they are serious about trial advocacy.
If you have any questions on how you can receive the NITA Advocate or NITA Master Advocate Designation, please review the information on our Advocate Designations page, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer Daily News written on September 2nd, Tyrone Jones is released after spending 40 years in prison. he maintains his innocence in a crime he was arrested for at the age of 16. According to staff writer Samantha Melamed, Jones is the first Philadelphian released under a 2012 Supreme Court ruling against mandatory life sentences for juveniles.
NITA faculty member and attorney Hayes Hunt, is Jones’ attorney and expressed in the article that Jones maintained his innocence through the parole process and said many policymakers believed it was an impossible hurdle that they would never overcome. Hunt, who is an attorney at the law firm Cozen O’Connor which, with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, provided Jones with pro bono representation since 2009.
NITA would like to extend a congratulations to Hunt on this outstanding accomplishment as Jones is now able to reunite with his family after 40 years. To read the rest of Melamed’s article, please click here.
NITA is thrilled to announce NITA’s Class of 2017 Next Generation (NextGen) faculty: Solomon Chang, of the San Diego Office of the Primary Public Defender; Allison Rocker, of the Denver District Attorney’s Office and the Rose Andom Center; and Moe Spencer of the Spencer Palace Law Office.
Our congratulations go out to Solomon, Allison, and Moe. We welcome you to the NITA family and look forward to hearing about your adventures as you travel from coast to coast in support of programs, mentor attendees through the rigors of NITA training become lifelong friends with your fellow faculty members.
Get a preview of Moe as an instructor in his webcast on killer opening statements. It airs this Thursday, January 19. Register now.
Solomon is an experienced trial attorney for the San Diego Office of the Public Defender. His practice focuses solely on representing individuals charged with the most serious criminal offenses. He has tried over forty cases to verdict, including homicide and child sexual assault cases.
Solomon’s unique skillset as a gifted advocate first became apparent while attending California Western School of Law. In his first year, he became the first student to win two separate advocacy competitions. In his second year, his trial team won first place in the American Association for Justice’s Student Trial Advocacy Competition. In his third year, Solomon worked abroad in Santiago, Chile, assisting in trial skills training for Chilean public defenders. At the time, Chile had just begun transitioning toward an adversarial criminal justice system modeled after the United States.
After graduation, the school brought Solomon on as an adjunct professor to teach Trial Advocacy. He also began coaching competitive mock trial teams. His students have consistently won regional and national competitions.
Solomon’s passion for advocacy and teaching soon caught the eyes of his supervisors at the Public Defender’s office. He now assists with training and development for new attorney hires. In 2015, Solomon attended NITA Teacher Training in New York and was subsequently asked to teach at the NITA Pacific Regional Trial Skills Program in San Diego. His natural ability to assist students in honing their trial skills while using the NITA method ultimately led him to his nomination as one of this year’s NextGen rising stars.
Solomon received his B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin in 2005.
Allison Rocker was sharing a meal with a Bedouin tribe in a crowded grass and mud hut on the outskirts of a Moroccan desert when she decided that she wanted to be a prosecutor.
With over a decade of experience in motions and trial practice, Allison thrives as a public speaker and mentor. Her passion is ending violence against women and children, as well as the fair treatment of all those involved in the criminal justice system.
A Colorado native, Allison grew up skiing, hiking, and wanting to be outdoors as much as possible. Her undergraduate career started at the University of Oregon but, after eight months of solid rain, she decided to transfer to CU–Boulder. A combination of life experiences as well as advice she received from a mentor while attending the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law generated a growing interest in the criminal field.
The majority of her career has been focused on crimes against women and children. She is currently a Senior Deputy at the Denver District Attorney’s Office and the Domestic Violence Prosecution Specialist at the Rose Andom Center—a collaborative center that houses both community organizations and government agencies that work together to end domestic violence. She has taught different aspects of trial practice to law enforcement, lawyers, interns, and advocates from around the state and outside of Colorado.
Prior to trial, she usually practices her opening and closing arguments in front of her dog, Kalla, who tends to provide very little in the way of feedback.
Merwin Moe Spencer is the principal attorney of Spencer Palace Law Office in Everett, Washington. Moe was brought up in the West Indies on the island of Trinidad and Tobago before moving to Texas as a child. During college, Moe went abroad for two years and lived in Cannes, France, where he studied art and languages before moving on to studying public policy at Oxford University in England. Moe earned his B.A. from Rice University in 1997, and began work as a high-tech programmer and software trainer for startups.
Moe attended the University of Oregon School of Law in Eugene from 2002 to 2005. He was president of the Black Law Student Association and a member of both the Street Law Club and the Criminal Defense Clinic. While in law school, Moe worked as a public defender in Lane County and at Davis Wright Tremaine in Portland as a summer associate, where he worked on class actions suits, toxic torts, mediations, business litigation and arbitrations, and trial work. He later clerked for the Honorable Chief Presiding Judge Ancer L. Haggerty of the U.S. Federal District Court of Oregon in Portland, preparing summary judgments motions and writing opinions for the judge on Title VII discrimination, Social Security benefits, and personal jurisdiction issues. He received his J.D. in 2005.
After law school, Moe was the Assistant to the Secretary of State of Oregon, Bill Bradbury before becoming the State Director of Government and Legal Relations for the American Cancer Society (ACS), where he lobbied and helped pass bills in the Oregon legislature in Salem on cancer issues for two years. Moe then went back into law practicing as a criminal defense, family, and trial attorney in eastern Washington for the Davidson Law Firm in Pasco.
Moe trained with Gerry Spence in Wyoming at his Trial Lawyer’s College in 2007 and attended National Criminal Defense College at Mercer Law School in Macon, Georgia, in 2012.
Now having his own firm, Moe has completed over forty trials to verdict in both federal and state courts and now focuses on representing marijuana growers and processors, as well as speaking nationally at colleges and universities and writing on Washington State’s marijuana laws and social justice issues (including medicinal versus recreational use, state versus federal, edibles and oils packaging, child protection and juvenile marijuana issues).
Moe takes on select cases dealing with civil rights, protest law, criminal law, murder cases, sex cases, defending termination of parental rights, juvenile and restorative justice law, expungement of past criminal records, marijuana law, and contracts and LFOs (legal financial obligation of court fees) write-offs. Moe is represented by Kirkland Production for his speaking engagements.
NITA would like to congratulate Gary S. Gildin on the appointment as dean of Dickinson Law by the Penn State’s Board of Trustees. Gildin is not only a professor of law, but he is also an author to multiple NITA publications including Stucky v. Conlee and Trial Advocacy Basics, Second Edition. Gildin has also taught at NITA’s ACLU public service program for many years. To read The Sentinel’s article on Gildin and his many accomplishments at Penn State, please click here.