Attorney’s release ends odd Los Angeles courtroom saga

Richard Fine is free after spending a year and a half behind bars for being a pain in the neck to Los Angeles County judges — a strange tale that began in the 1990s when the state took over responsibility for courts and judges became state employees.

Many of the state’s 58 counties decided to quietly continue giving judges additional pay or fringe benefits on top of their state salaries, topped by Los Angeles, whose package for judges approaches $50,000 a year and pushes their total compensation to well over $200,000.

Fine, an attorney whose clients often sued the county, raised a stink about the extra judicial pay, contending that it was a conflict of interest for judges to be deciding cases affecting the county while being given extra income by the county.

Fine wasn’t the only one to complain about the practice, and in October 2008, a state appellate court ruled that the supplemental payments were illegal. But judges quickly mobilized for political action and in February 2009, legislation to retroactively legalize the payments was slipped into a state budget package without any notice.

A few days later, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Yaffe clapped Fine into county jail for contempt of court because he refused to provide personal financial information in a dispute over attorneys’ fees. The State Bar moved to strip him of his license and federal courts, including the Supreme Court, denied his appeals.

“Fine holds the key to his jail cell,” Kevin McCormick, attorney for the Los Angeles courts, told a federal appellate court. “By simply agreeing to answer the questions and produce documents concerning his assets, that he has a legal obligation to provide, his coercive confinement will end.”

Fine, however, refused to buckle, so he sat in his jail cell month after month, while his supporters staged demonstrations and sought media support for his plight.

On Sept. 17, Judge Yaffe abruptly ordered Fine’s release, saying in his order that “it is becoming increasingly clear that Fine’s conduct is irrational [and] bizarre. …”

Yaffe added that he had concluded Fine could not make a rational decision, so the coercive nature of his confinement was no longer valid.

Fine replied that Yaffe’s release order proved his incarceration was punishment for challenging the extra judicial payments and was “a personal attack.”

Fine’s conduct may have been bizarre, but no more so than that of judges who would indefinitely imprison a 70-year-old attorney simply because, it would appear, they considered him to be a pest.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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