Years ago, Jonathan Turley, professor at George Washington University Law School, found himself unable to decide whether he wanted to be a professor or a litigator, so he cloned himself to be able to do both.
I am only half-joking; even after factoring in big firm co-counsel (including associates, paralegals, assistants, et cetera), being lead counsel on major litigation is no joke, particularly if you’re up against a well-funded opponent who not only defends the rightness of their conduct, but who conceals and destroys the truth lying at the heart of the case.
Take, for example, Rayming Chang et al. v. United States et al., Civil Action 02-2010, United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Here’s some background, courtesy of Washington City Paper:
On the morning of September 27, 2002, D.C. Police had set about to monitor anti-IMF/World Bank demonstrators. By then, the protests and the policing of the protests had become routine, almost boring. There were no major acts of violence, vandalism or unrest that day.
But then the police decided to move on people in Pershing Park. They had funneled protesters into the park. Video taken of the park shows the protesters looking bored, sitting around. There were also other non-protesters in the park including nurses in town for a convention, and lawyers on their way to work. Without warning, police rounded them up and arrested them all.
Police then transferred the mass to its training academy in Blue Plains; each citizen was then hogtied and left on a mat for hours. They were all arrested for "failure to obey" an officer’s order.
The controversial arrests hounded then-Chief Charles Ramsey. Then-Councilmember Kathy Patterson conducted an investigation into the incident and issued a devastating report.
The report concluded that Ramsey and Co. did not have probable cause to arrest anyone in Pershing Park, failed to give any orders to the people in Pershing Park (they were arrested for "failure to obey"), and went on to question whether Ramsey lied to the council in his testimonies.
Prof. Turley, along with a number of lawyers at Bryan Cave, represent the plaintiffs, who filed suit in October 2002, less than a month after the incident. For seven years, plaintiffs and their lawyers have exercised their right to civil justice to investigate what happened.
Seven years, you ask? Indeed. The case is a classic example of how a determined, entrenched defendant can abuse the discovery process to bury the truth for years, forcing the plaintiffs to spend thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain basic information.
D.C. has undoubtedly failed to permit discovery: e.g., after filing a motion to dismiss attaching affidavits referencing events outside of the complaint (which is flatly prohibited), defendants turned around and objected to discovery into those affidavits and events. After agreeing to produce some discovery informally, defendants turned around and demanded formal discovery, to which they then objected. After scheduling depositions, defendants canceled them at the last minute, then turned around and claimed the depositions were inappropriate.
Adding insult to injury, all of this litigiousness — all the above attempts to delay and to deny justice in a blatantly obvious case, all 567 docket entries in the case — are paid for by taxpayers not once (paying the Court), not twice (paying the government defense lawyers), but thrice, since attorney’s fees are available to plaintiffs who win in constitutional rights / 42 U.S.C. 1983 cases.
Plaintiffs have asked for simple stuff. Stuff that’s preserved in the ordinary course of business even when there’s no lawsuit. Stuff you’d expect the government that polices our national capitol city to hold on to when they throw hundreds of people in jail for doing nothing more than lawfully attending a protest.
Seven years of litigation later, the police’s own activity log from that day (the "running resume") has never been found. Audiotapes of police radio communications from that day have been produced, but with significant gaps.
The dog ate it.
The judge isn’t buying it:
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan last week blasted D.C. officials for mishandling evidence in a civil lawsuit brought by some of those arrested seven years ago. In an extraordinary rebuke that reduced D.C. assistant attorney general Thomas Koger to tears, Judge Sullivan likened the city’s "shenanigans" to the kind of prosecutorial abuses he saw in the criminal case of former senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). The office of D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles was singled out, but the questions extend to police and other officials.
Plaintiffs allege that critical evidence — such as the "running résumé" of all events and decisions made on Sept. 27 — was destroyed or lost. Even more troubling is their rather convincing charge that information was deleted from audiotapes supplied to them during discovery. Judge Sullivan has demanded that Mr. Nickles provide a full accounting of the city’s "pattern of shortcomings" and "discovery abuses."
Mr. Nickles told us that he is taking the judge’s admonition to heart. He has blamed the city’s inability to properly manage records during discovery on a chronic lack of resources, but he said he is reserving judgment on exactly what went wrong in this case until he knows all the facts. It’s encouraging that he enlisted former federal judge Stanley Sporkin, who is offering his considerable expertise on a pro bono basis, to advise him.
That was a few months ago. As Turley reported Saturday,
For those following the World Bank/IMF litigation, the Attorney General of the District of Columbia has been repeatedly referencing the forthcoming report of his adviser, former Judge Stan Sporkin, on the allegations of the destruction of evidence in the case. Judge Sullivan has previously indicated that he is considering a criminal referral and would wait for the Sporkin Report. The District waited until after 6 p.m. on a Friday night to file the report.
The report states the following:
* “Because the contradictory statement in the record are incapable of being reconciled, we cannot rule out the possibility of untruthfulness or something worse.” (Page 16)
* “We are particularly disturbed by the fact that not only have we been unable to retrieve a hard copy of the Running resume but also that the electronic copy was purged from the system. We have no way of knowing whether this was an act of intentional mischief or reflects a benign action. We do not believe it was the later” (sic) (page 15.)
* “We are particularly troubled by the fact that the group recordation system was purged. It is difficult to understand how something like this could occur innocently.” (Page 16)
Judge Sporkin wasn’t hired by the plaintiffs; he wasn’t even appointed by the Court. He’s D.C.’s own advisor, and he thinks the running resume was intentionally destroyed.
Turley’s role in the case precludes him from saying much about the case, but the truth is, everything can be summed up in one word: the whole case — from the arrests to the coverup to the stalling tactics in litigation — is a disgrace.
The Sporkin Report — by no means a whitewash, but an incomplete investigation since he left no paper trail — is only the beginning. If we cannot have the truth, then we must know at least where it went and why. Actions have consequences.