Appreciating Our Professors: Charles L. Black

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Charles Black was a professor at Yale Law School while I was a student there, and although I never had a course with him, I would still name him as the professor who most influenced me.

During the fall of my first year, two of my best friends were assigned to Professor Black’s Constitutional Law class, and they were quite enamored with him. He was legendary to even us neophytes: a brilliant constitutional scholar, a leading light for equality in the Brown v. Board of Education case, and an outspoken critic of the death penalty. My friends reported that despite his fame, he was modest and charming, with a great sense of humor.

Time marched on until Halloween, when I, the two aforementioned women who were in Charles Black’s class, and another woman, decided that our lack of funds should not prevent us from enjoying the holiday. So the four of us pooled our resources, purchased some red poster board, black paint, and string, and proceeded to make sandwich boards of the four first year casebooks, which we then wore to go trick-or-treating in — you guessed it — Professor Black’s neighborhood. When we rang the doorbell, Charles Black appeared at the door with a bowl of candy — he just looked and acted like an ordinary guy, with his longish curly hair, craggy face, and cowboy boots worn with jeans. He was focused on the candy at first, but when he finally looked up, his eyes widened. “My Lord!” he said in his Texas drawl, “it’s my students!”

Without a moment’s hesitation, he invited us inside, and pressed tumblers of scotch upon us.

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Halloween Frights

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Family Law2 Comments on Halloween Frights

It’s Halloween, so children have dreams of scaring adults, and adults have nightmares about other adults harming children. Lawmakers in Missouri this year have been concerned about a particular kind of harm: sexual offenses against children. They passed a state law that prohibited convicted sexual offenders from having any “Halloween-related contact with children,” and required the offenders to remain at their homes on Halloween night between the trick-or-treat hours of 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. unless they have “just cause” for leaving. The law did not define either “just cause” or “Halloween-related contact.” The law also required sexual offenders to turn off any porch lights and to post signs stating “no candy or treats at this residence.”

On Monday a federal judge issued an order blocking most parts of the statute as unclear, leaving in place only the provisions requiring that porch lights be extinguished and that there be a sign announcing that no candy would be given out at the offenders’ residences. Opponents of the law had argued that it was unclear; for example, did it prohibit contact between the sexual offenders and their own children on Halloween even if such contact would not be prohibited on other days? Would a convicted sexual offender have to avoid the decoration section of stores if children were there picking out their pumpkins? Opponents also argued that the law was an unfair double punishment for a crime for which a sentence had already been served.

Did the court make the right decision? I would say yes.

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Love, Loss, and Palimony

Posted on Categories Family Law3 Comments on Love, Loss, and Palimony

Today, reports on a New Jersey appellate court’s decision in Bayne v. Johnson, which involved a palimony claim by a woman who had been a party in a bizarre triangular relationship for almost twenty years.  According to the article, Fiona Bayne, then a 25-year-old flight attendant with British Airways, began a romance with 41-year-old Earl Johnson in 1981. Earl Johnson was married at that time to Carolyn Johnson, a wealthy 61-year-old woman with a string of six failed marriages.  (Earl had three previous marriages when he married Carolyn.)  The marriage was reportedly one of convenience entered into by Carolyn in 1978 so that her three estranged children would not be able to take control of her financial affairs.  As the beneficiary of a trust valued at $11 million, Carolyn had plenty to lose financially if her children had her declared incompetent and took over control of her money as she feared.  Although the couple reportedly agreed to pursue separate lives, Carolyn supported Earl in a lavish lifestyle through the years.

Bayne, who was living in an apartment in the Bahamas provided by Earl (and paid for with his wife’s money), did not know about Earl’s marriage for the first few years of the relationship.  Once she found out, however, she remained in the relationship.  Bayne, Earl, and Carolyn moved to various locations to pursue Earl’s business ventures with Carolyn bankrolling both the business ventures and the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the three.   Continue reading “Love, Loss, and Palimony”

Grieving Loved Ones at War Over a Pension

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It is sad when a family member dies, and even sadder when the aftermath of the death brings feuding and court actions between loved ones.  The parents and fiancée of Kevin Prior, a firefighter killed in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, are embroiled in such a dispute over the $37,600 a year in benefits payable to survivors under Mr. Prior’s pension plan. A 2003 New York State law allowed “domestic partners,” as well as parents and spouses, to collect the pension benefits of firefighters and policemen killed on 9/11.  The definition of domestic partner is someone who showed either “unilateral dependence or mutual interdependence” with the deceased based upon a court’s analysis of any relevant factors such as living arrangements, budgeting, length and seriousness of the relationship, and intent to marry.  In the case of Mr. Prior’s survivors, the two sides offer completely different versions of the reality that constituted Mr. Prior’s personal relationships.

The fiancée, Doreen Noone, claims that the two lived together for eight months during the 1990s and that Mr. Prior paid most of her bills.  She also claims that she spent four or five nights a week with him in his parents’ basement, where he later moved, returning to her own parents’ house only when he was on duty at the firehouse.  Prior’s parent flatly deny her account, insisting that none of their boys were allowed to “have girls overnight” in the house.  Although they concede that their son had paid approximately $7,000 of Noone’s bills over a three-year period, the Priors contend that the couple did not share budgeting.  “All that happened was they had plans for a wedding, and those plans were interrupted,” they say.  Mr. Prior’s best friend, Sgt. Edward Wheeler (who is now married to Ms. Noone), supports Ms. Noone’s version of the relationship.

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The Culpability of Passive Abuse

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Family Law, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process5 Comments on The Culpability of Passive Abuse

Last Friday, a Brooklyn mother was convicted of manslaughter in an infamous case that has, once again, led to soul-searching and overhaul of New York City’s child welfare system.  What is remarkable about this case is that the mother never struck a single blow; rather, her 7-year-old daughter was beaten to death by her stepfather.  Seven months ago, the stepfather was similarly convicted, and he is currently serving 26 1/3 to 29 years in prison.  Ironically, the mother could end up serving much more time than that, because she was also convicted of assault, unlawful imprisonment, and endangering the welfare of a child.

As any child advocate will tell you, the facts of cases such as this one are horrifyingly familiar: brutal beatings and sadistic tortures by one adult (in this case, the little girl was tied to chairs, held under cold water, and forced to use a litter box instead of a toilet), chilling acquiescence by another adult, and mistake after mistake by whatever public agency is supposed to prevent this kind of thing by early intervention into suspicious circumstances.  Nearly two decades ago another notorious New York case, which involved the beating death of another little girl, triggered a national discussion about accountability and responsibility on the part of the “passive” parent.  In that case, 6-year-old Lisa Steinberg was beaten unconscious by Joel Steinberg (who had illegally adopted her) while Steinberg’s partner, Hedda Nussbaum (pictured above), was in the next room.  Steinberg left the apartment for three hours, leaving the girl unconscious, and Hedda did not call for help until the next morning, when the child stopped breathing.  In the Steinberg case, though, Joel was convicted of the killing while all charges were ultimately dropped against Hedda.

Why the difference in outcomes?  Continue reading “The Culpability of Passive Abuse”

Lessons from Nebraska’s Struggle With an Abandoned Baby Law

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In the past few years, many states have passed legislation allowing parents of newborns to drop their infants off at a designated safe place, no questions asked. These laws are intended to prevent the tragedy of unwanted newborns that have been literally left to die in dumpsters, public toilets, and similar places, usually by panicked teenage parents. Nebraska is the most recent state to pass such a law, but whether by negligence or design, the Nebraska statute did not specify a maximum age of a child who could be left at a safe place without legal repercussions to the parents. In a turn of events that would be comical if it weren’t so sad, Nebraska has seen a parade of 17 different children dropped off at designated hospitals: none of them have been infants, and most have been adolescents. Since Nebraska’s legislature is part-time and does not resume session until January, there may be more drop-offs before the law can be amended.

What’s going on here, and what can we learn from it? Continue reading “Lessons from Nebraska’s Struggle With an Abandoned Baby Law”

“Elderspeak”: Guarding Against Condescension Towards Our Clients

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Yesterday’s New York Times had an article discussing the phenomenon of “Elderspeak,” defined as the belittling, condescending, and falsely nice and cheerful way many people talk when they are addressing older adults.  The pattern is easily recognizable to anyone who has every accompanied a gray-haired relative on any errand or to an appointment: quick use of the elderly person’s first name, unnaturally loud voice, talking slowly, or unwanted endearments like “dearie,” “gramps,” or “good girl.”  According to researchers quoted in the article, these methods of address are not only resented by the elderly people who are faced with them, but elderspeak may actually produce more negative images of aging.  “And those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival” (Dr. Becca Levy, quoted in the article).

While the article is particularly critical of health care professionals for falling into the elderspeak trap, it also cites examples from other settings, including stores and restaurants.  Lawyers are not singled out, but there are lessons for us here as well. Continue reading ““Elderspeak”: Guarding Against Condescension Towards Our Clients”

Suicide and Inheritance: A New Ruling by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals

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Last week, the Fourth District Court of Appeals in Wisconsin ruled on a case involving a testator (Edward Schunk) who committed suicide and the inheritance rights of the family who survived him. Apparently, Edward was on a one-day pass from a hospital when he was found dead in a cabin which he owned. The death resulted from a single, self-inflicted shotgun blast to his chest. His will left property to his wife, to his daughter from his second marriage, and to some (but not all) of his six older children who were not Linda’s children. Five of those older children challenged the inheritance by the second wife (Linda) and child from that marriage (Megan) on the grounds that they had aided Edward in committing suicide, and thus should be barred from inheriting under a Wisconsin statute that forbids inheritance by persons who unlawfully and intentionally kill the decedent. Linda and Megan denied providing any help to the decedent’s suicidal act, and asserted that Edward had taken his gun and gone to the cabin without their knowledge. Continue reading “Suicide and Inheritance: A New Ruling by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals”