October 21, 2010

One Bad Tennessee Apple

One of the things that is most aggravating to me in court is when the judicial officer presiding over a hearing relinquishes control of proceedings to one of the parties – and when that party then uses that latitude from the bench to go off on rants about irrelevant matters which will not materially affect the outcome of the issues to be resolved. For a famous example of this, consider how the defense attorneys abused Judge Lance Ito like he was an inexperienced substitute teacher in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

That’s apparently what is going on in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where there is a trial going on in Chancery Court (what we in California would call a Superior Court hearing non-probate civil matters) concerning the building of a mosque at the hands of one Joe Brandon Jr., a member of the Tennessee State Bar who represents a group of plaintiffs who want to stop construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, which would include a mosque:
Plaintiffs who oppose the mosque want a temporary restraining order to block construction on the site. They claim county officials violated state law by failing to provide adequate notice of the meeting where the site plan was approved.But many of Brandon's questions had nothing to do with procedural issues, and he repeatedly drew objections from lawyers for the county.
"Do you want to know about a direct connection between the Islamic Center and Sharia law, a.k.a. terrorism?" Brandon asked Farley.
At one point during questioning, Brandon began asking whether Farley supported hanging up a whip in his house as a warning to his wife and then beating her with it.
Farley protested that he would never beat his wife.
County attorney Jim Cope objected to the question, saying, "This is a circus."
I’d have to agree with Cope. The defense argument here is that Rutherford County did not issue permits for the construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro with proper notice to the public of the meeting in which those permits were issued. The same argument would apply to the construction of any building. What will or will not go on in that building, whether that be worship of a supernatural entity (whether real or imagined is particularly irrelevant), the consumption of alcohol, the exhibition of educational motion pictures, or topless dancing, really doesn’t have anything to do with whether the county went through the proper notice procedures before issuing permits.

I'm not sure what remedy Brandon could be asking for -- to retract the permits and make the Islamic Center re-apply for them? That might delay construction for a few weeks, but would hardly prevent the mosque from being built at the end of the day. This business with the whips and equating Sharia with terrorism has no ascertainable relationship with whether public notices were promulgated in the correct manner and at the correct time. A motion to exclude evidence (sometimes called a motion in limine) would be in order here.

But for some reason, Chancellor Robert Corlew is not restraining Mr. Brandon, despite acknowledging in response to an objection by the County’s attorney that “Brandon had not established any proof, in four days of testimony dragging over three weeks, that local Muslims were in any way a threat,” and he allowed the plaintiff’s lawyer to continue with that line of questioning even after that point was made. So Mr. Brandon went on to claim that a Muslim man in the area “has an Arabic phrase over his front door that the attorney referred to as ‘the battle cry for jihad.’” It turns out to be the phrase “Allahu Akbar,” which means “God is Great,” and to effectively slander the County Mayor with claims of financial impropriety on the flimsiest of accusations and no apparent evidence to substantiate them.

I say “for some reason,” but in fact I strongly suspect I know what that reason is. Chancellor Corlew has already made up his mind that he is going to rule against the plaintiffs and in favor of Rutherford County. That will allow the mosque to get built. By not restraining the plaintiff’s lawyer, and overruling any objections to questions made by him, Chancellor Corlew is starving the plaintiffs of any issues to raise on appeal. Although it ought to be abundantly clear by this point that the absence of evidence, logic, or even good taste is not going to restrain either Mr. Brandon or (apparently) his clients.

It’s unfortunate, though, that presumptively good people looking to engage in a lawful religious activity, about which there is no evidence whatsoever that they are harmful, malicious, or in any way not assets to their community, as well as the public officials who made functionally ministerial decisions to allow these American citizens to go forward with their lawful plans, should have to be raked over the coals like this. It gives the legal profession a bad name. It makes Murfreesboro, Tennessee look like an enclave of bigots because people will remember the antics of Mr. Brandon rather than the more tolerant and appropriate conduct of the governmental officials and residents of the area being raked over the coals.

(Murfreesboro, Tennessee is, in fact, a perfectly charming and pleasant southern town, which has become an exurb of Nashville and is home to a rather large public university and a site of great historical significance. Back during my time in Tennessee, professional endeavors took me to Murfreesboro on a few occasions, and I never found anything objectionable about any of the people I met there, or any of the lawyers or judges I saw or spoke with while in the city. Indeed, one Murfreesboro lawyer went out of his way to give me advice and guidance for establishing myself as an attorney after I had recently moved there. I have pretty much only good things to say about Murfreesboro based on my admittedly limited experiences there.)

If you think, as I do, that by engaging in these antics Joe Brandon has cast the legal profession and the State of Tennessee into otherwise-undeserved disrepute, maybe you ought to share that opinion with him. His toll-free telephone number is (866) 662-3884. By all means be firm and direct, but also please bear in mind that you should express yourself peacefully and politely.

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