The John Edwards trial began today in North Carolina, and there is no chance that the media would overlook a criminal trial involving a former presidential candidate and vice presidential nominee who cheated on his likable wife while she was dying of cancer. But the real impact of this trial is its precedential effect on campaign finance law. And the media have done a decent job of trying to highlight that point.
Basically, the government is arguing that payments made by Edwards’ friends to his mistress, Rielle Hunter, to keep her story secret amounts to illegal campaign contributions that were not reported. In order to win, the prosecutors will have to convince a jury – and in all likelihood, an appellate court if they win at trial – that the primary purpose of the payments was to keep Edwards’ political prospects alive rather than to simply keep his wife in the dark about his extracurricular shenanigans. This aggressive stance has sent some chills through the political class, as it could greatly increase the definition of campaign donations to include virtually anything that, while personal in nature, also has a collateral benefit to a candidate’s political viability.
The other teaching moment here is the choice faced by criminal defendants who truly believe they have done nothing illegal. The media have described Edwards as “rolling the dice” by refusing a plea deal involving minimal jail time and the opportunity to keep his law license in lieu of risking a long prison term if convicted. But what is a defendant supposed to do? Accepting a plea deal means pleading guilty in open court, which is very difficult for those who believe – as Edwards and many independent legal experts do – that no law was broken. The only way, frankly, to prove the prosecution wrong and to avoid a criminal record is to go through with the trial, regardless of the risk.
But that’s what trials are supposed to do – sort out the facts and apply the law. Along with the salacious stuff that will certainly dominate coverage, let’s hope the media keeps their eyes on that ball as well.
Posted: 4/23/2012 2:50:44 PM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments
The law and the bright lights of the media collided in a big way yesterday with the long-anticipated press conference by the special prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin case. Media representatives from around the world gathered to hear Angela Corey announce that she would pursue second degree murder charges against Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman. As we have noted before, the press – aided by those who have already reached their own conclusions based only on media reports – likes to consume itself with endless speculation about what the outcome should be, despite not having the benefit of an actual investigation.
During her first appearance on the national stage, Corey passed with flying colors by setting forth clearly and articulately how the criminal justice system is supposed to work and why it is and must be completely different than how the press would handle things. Among her relevant points:
• A criminal charge is based upon application of the law to the evidence, not because of media coverage or public opinion
• A prosecutor’s mission is to seek the truth
• Prosecutors have strict rules regarding what they can and cannot discuss
• In the criminal justice system, facts are revealed carefully and painstakingly in a court of law to protect the rights of everyone involved
• Everyone should refrain from judging the case until “due diligence and due process takes its course”
That is exactly how the system is supposed to work. Of course, some cynics will suggest that Corey’s comments are words only and won’t be followed. Perhaps, but that will become clear as the case unfolds and the eventual trial takes place. Even prosecutors, who have a tremendous amount of power, can be severely punished when they violate their oath.
If this were the Old West, Zimmerman might already have been hunted down by vigilantes or strung up by a mob. We’re fortunate that we live in times like these, where the case is in the hands of a prosecutor who understands both the need for justice and the rights of the accused as she seeks to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
Posted: 4/12/2012 2:42:10 PM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments
A trio of cases decided in Georgia over the past 15 months and a recent lawsuit filed against a San Antonio firm are perhaps signaling a new paradigm in cases involving claims of online defamation, a favorite topic here at “On the Merits.”
Because of the broad protections afforded by the First Amendment, few plaintiffs in years past were willing to take on the time and expense of pursuing a defamation claim. But the expanding Internet and the accompanying amount of vitriol from bloggers and online commenters have given rise to a new breed of plaintiffs who are more willing to ask the courts to punish those accused of defamation. In the three Georgia cases, individuals who posted online comments on message boards and news websites were hit with damages ranging from $400,000 to $900,000. An attorney who won one of the verdicts attributed the high-dollar awards to the “public outrage over Internet nastiness.”
The advent of the internet removed the traditional middleman – an editor or TV news director, perhaps – whose job was to filter out the questionable, tasteless and outright slanderous content from reaching the world at large. As a result, both individuals and businesses have had to deal with unprecedented nastiness. These lawsuits demonstrate that the legal system is prepared to deal with the new world order, and with laws that are as old as the republic.
Posted: 4/12/2012 6:55:07 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments
Media outlets in Texas and around the world have been having a field day with the recent story of a Dallas lawyer who filed suit against a local television station for allegedly failing to forward calls to his office after the attorney purchased spots on an “Ask the Lawyer” program. But as often happens with media reports about lawsuits and lawyers, there’s more to the story.
Thomas Corea of Dallas’ Corea Trial Group filed the claim seeking $1.4 million after CBS affiliate KXTA allegedly failed to forward nearly 60 percent of the calls the station received during episodes of “Ask the Lawyer With Tom Corea,” which cost the firm $2,750 per 30-minute episode. According to the complaint, Corea received more than 1,200 calls during the initial episodes of “Ask the Lawyer” before the phone lines seemingly went dead. The lawsuit says Corea discovered the reason for the decline when his sales rep at the TV station provided a list of all the “Ask a Lawyer” calls the station received during the times when the program aired. When Corea compared that list to one assembled by his call center, he found that only 44 percent of the incoming calls actually were transferred to his office, according to the allegations.
Some media pundits have mocked the lawsuit as a situation where a “TV lawyer” is simply experiencing sour grapes, but Corea’s petition tells a different story. The filing explains that Corea secured an agreement with the station beforehand to ensure that representatives from his office would be able to answer each call in order to guard against callers receiving potentially erroneous answers to legal questions and to prevent any appearance of impropriety or, worse, barratry. Corea also says in the lawsuit that both he and the station agreed that a high number of calls was the only reason for the lawyer to purchase the “Ask a Lawyer” spots in the first place, so the agreement basically became worthless once the call volume cratered.
So all the media hype essentially boils down to a contract dispute between two parties, which ultimately will be decided based on the actual language of the agreed contract. The fact that one of those parties was a lawyer and the other was a TV station is all that was necessary to turn this somewhat mundane contract case into a media firestorm.
Posted: 4/6/2012 12:00:00 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments
Texas attorneys who claim they are “specialists” in advertisements and elsewhere are required to back up that statement by earning board certification from the Texas Board of Legal Specialization (TBLS) or becoming a member of an organization that has been accredited by the TBLS. The Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct also require attorneys to include the names of certifying organizations in any ads where specialization is claimed. While some view the reporting requirement as burdensome for lawyers who’ve earned the right to call themselves specialists, the Texas rules are a breeze when compared to similar New York regulations, which recently were declared unconstitutional by a federal appeals court.
The March 5 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit follows an 11-year legal battle over the New York rules, which require attorneys to name certifying organizations in advertisements and firm letterhead. The main complaint with the New York rules was a requirement for attorneys to include a 40-word disclaimer in ads and letterhead stating that any listed certifying organizations are not affiliated with the government and that certification is not a requirement for practicing law or an indication of greater competence.
Although attorney J. Michael Hayes included the disclaimer in two billboard advertisements installed in 1999, the Buffalo, N.Y.-based lawyer found himself targeted by a state bar grievance committee complaint that the disclaimer was not “prominently made.” Hayes responded with a lawsuit filed in 2001. His claims were thrown out in a bench trial before he filed an appeal with the Second Circuit. The appeals court sided with Hayes after finding that the “prominently made” language was unconstitutionally vague and other language in the New York rule violated the First Amendment.
It is not clear whether this ruling will cause other states to review their policies regarding similar disclaimer requirements, but it does provide New York attorneys with more certainty. Hayes told reporters that he expects more New York lawyers will seek board certification now that they know they will be able to advertise that accomplishment without having to include the 40-word disclaimer on their letterhead and advertisements.
Posted: 4/5/2012 6:20:30 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments
About This Blog
Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.
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