Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Judge Snite Is in a Snit!

Coucilman Kelly is suing a political critic, Paul Corbett for defamation in the Philadelphia courtroom of Judge A.J. Snite, Jr. according to the Philadelphia Inquirer website.  The trial is off to quite a start with the Judge interrupting the defendant's opening statement and threatening to jail the defense attorney.  This is from Jeff Shields article at Philly.com, on the courtroom drama:

"Judge A.J. Snite Jr. stopped proceedings during opening statements to call a sheriff's deputy to the courtroom. The judge warned C. Scott Shields, attorney for defendant Paul Corbett, that 'you're going to be taken into custody,'  if Shields continued to interpret the state constitution for the jurors.

The judge said he had warned Shields three times against doing that and yelled and banged and pounded the bench with his hand as he warned Shields to 'stop smiling.'

'I'm not going to proceed here unless there's a sheriff who can take you into custody if need be,' the judge said. Kelly is suing Corbett for defamation for fliers that Corbett distributed during the 2007 general election that accused Kelly of supporting the 'homosexual lobby' and 'sodomy' and corruption of minors for his vote to end the city's rent-free lease on the Boy Scouts' headquarters at 22nd and Spring Garden Streets.

The judge stopped Shields as he was reading from the Pennsylvania Constitution regarding the right to free speech and hardly could contain his anger as he told the jury that he would be instructing them on the law, not the attorney.  Just before 11:30 a.m. Shields asked the judge for a mistrial for his comments in front of the jury, and to recuse himself because he believed his client could not get a fair trial before Snite.Snite denied both motions from the bench and called the jury back so Shields could finish his opening statement."
Several points to be made:

First, what a great name for Judge, A.J. Snite, Jr.  I mean it's full-Dickensian!   I was looking at websites and I learned that Judge Snite's first name is Albert.  Apparently he is a longtime member of the Common Pleas Court Criminal Division.  Bear in mind this is a civil defamation.

Secondly, how did this case get to trial?  I'd love to see the motion practice--afterall, Councilman Kelly is a "public figure" and especially in the area of political discourse, the courts have historically permitted the rankest sort of accusation and fabrication from time immemorial.  More on defamation in a subsequent post.

Trying a case in front of a honked off Judge is quite nerve-wracking--on one hand I've seen lawyers who routinely provoked this sort of reaction out of a Judge (on Bad Lawyer we discussed Geoffrey Fieger, and Phillip Kay); on the otherhand, I've had the unjustifiably out-of-control Judge.  Which is this? 

Trial tactics: opening statements are not arguments.  Opening statements as I've said previously are outlines of the evidence the lawyer believes will be admitted in the case and opening statements provide a narrative for their client's case.  I'm trying to imagine why reading the Pennsylvania and, or US Constitutions made tactical sense, or why the mere reading of these documents constituted "interpreation."  Again we are that point where the published courtroomm coverage leaves us without sufficient information to reach a judgment--on what precisely occurred.  Was the lawyer provocative, or was Judge Snite out of control?!

It is possible to envision a Judge who is perceived by the defense attorney as patently biased an unfair, and through calculation the attorney draws--(is that why, the reporter describes the Judge as being upeset about the lawyer "smiling?")--the Judge out on the record to show bias and prejudice for the purpose of an appellate transcript.   That's quite a gamble.  I believe I previously described a Judge in one of my own cases angrily tell a jury that I "lied in chambers about him."  The appellate court while recognizing this as prejudicial error said the Judge cured the error with a "corrective instruction."  But, if you do have a Judge who is going to queer your case, it is not an unheard of strategy to provoke a mistrial. 

Finally, I empathize with both of these lawyers--civil trial work is difficult enough, having an angry Judge means the final outcome will remain in doubt for a long, long time.


  1. http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20100112_Defamation_trial__Councilman_Kelly_s_suit_argues_fliers_hurt_campaign__defendant_claims_free_speech_rights.html

    Seems to me, Judge Snite actually may have exhibited pre-trial bias, remarking on the record that the accusations of Corbett bordered on "criminal" and were of the sort that not too long ago would have resulted in Councilman Kelly being tarred and feathered. That's a little strong, Judge. Even if you believe that to be the case, why are you saying it on the record before the trial? Look, I find the homophobic ravings of this guy, Corbett offensive, but I'm at a loss as to how this is actionable.

  2. Snite update badness, http://www.philly.com/philly/news/homepage/20100113_Judge_reins_in_defense_lawyer_at_defamation_trial.html