10/29/2006

Kangaroo Court-Part 2 (..or, No good deed goes unpunished.)

Larry Anderson is a respected local attorney. When a neighbor of his passed away not too long ago, Larry learned at the funeral that the widow was having problems with a collection company. Apparently, a "Household Bank" claimed that this woman owed it money, but she had never even heard of the company and never borrowed any money from it.

Household Bank was not forthcoming with any information. For some time it refused to produce any information and, ultimately, it produced one of those things that looks like a check, but if you deposit it into your account, you are agreeing to borrow the money. The problem was, though, that the widow claimed (apparently quite credibly) that she never signed the check and the signature on the check was not hers. Evidence that she did, in fact, sign the check has apparently not been forthcoming from the bank.

This case began in front of our 'other' Justice of the Peace, Kathleen Jensen. Ultimately, the widow filed a motion for summary judgment. This is a dispositive motion that would end the case. Normally a court is required to hold a hearing on such motions and allow the attorneys to argue orally. This requirement can be avoided if both sides agree.

In this case, the bank waived any right to oral argument. Before the widow's lawyer even had a chance to respond, though, JP Jensen issued an "order" deciding that no oral argument was "required." This is important for a few reasons. First, as a general rule, a court should not decide matters based upon one side's assertions without at least allowing the other side a chance to respond (It's called "due process" for those of you with aspirations to Justice Court). Further, the "order" that JP Jensen issued was suspect for a few reasons:

  • The order came to attorney Anderson not from the Justice Court, but in an envelope for "Larsen Law Firm, PLLC," the law firm that represented the bank.
  • In the upper left-hand corner of the order, it reflected Kyle Larsen of the Larsen Law Firm as the drafter of the order.
  • On the bottom of the order, it says: "This is an attempt to collect a debt. Any information will be used for that purpose. Larsen Law Firm-Debt Collection Since 1956."

Now, in fairness to Judge Jensen, it is not unusual for lawyers to prepare proposed orders for the convenience of the court. That in and of itself is certainly no reason to complain here. But when you combine the fact that the order contains the logo of the opposing counsel, that it was issued without giving the widow a chance to respond, when it was apparently provided to one side who sat on it for a couple days before bothering to mail it out, then it starts to smell. A court must scrupulously avoid the appearance of partiality for reasons that are far too obvious to state here. I can see why Anderson would be angry: why would JP Jensen rule solely based upon the assertions of only one side, and then why would she only provide one side with a copy of the order? If I represented the widow these circumstances would make me very uncomfortable.

So, a day or so after receiving the order, attorney Anderson filed his "Statement of Position." In discussing this matter with me, Mr. Anderson admits that his "Statement" was, perhaps, a bit intemperate and in hindsight he might not have filed it. He does not agree, though, that it was improper in light of what had occurred in the case. The Statement provides:

On this date, the undersigned received a document mailed from Plaintiff's counsel's office, under Plaintiff's counsel's name and address, using Plaintiff's counsel's envelope, and presumably Plaintiff's counsel's stamp entitled "Order Re: Oral Argument." The "Order" stated no oral argument is required for this summary judgment proceeding. This document contains the collection agency statement required by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The document contains a Justice of the Peace signature stamp in the name of Kathleen Parker [sic], with a date stamped as well.

This document causes the undersigned to wonder who is operating this court and to further wonder whether this Court has surrended its operations to a collection industry. Certainly, litigants should at a minimum have a right to expect at least an appearance of impartiality, even if in fact there is no impartiality.

Nevertheless, under the Rules of Civil Procedure, a court may not eliminate oral argument in a summary judgment proceeding without consent from both parties. Consent certainly should be obtained by and from the moving party. Here the moving party has not given consent. Though, based on the above, one wonders whether oral argument would have any effect, other than to give an appearance of
impartiality.

Well, Judge Jensen did not like that one little bit. So, a few days later, she filed an "Affidavit," to refer the case "for investigation of possible contempt and hearing pursuant to MCA Sec. 3-1-512."

Then, on June 23, 2006, Judge Sam Harris appeared on the case. He set a hearing for July 3, 2006 for Mr. Anderson should not be held in contempt of court for "the actions stated in the Court's Order dated April 6, 2006." Only one problem: the court did not enter an order on April 6, 2006.

Now Mr. Anderson was forced to hire his own lawyer to defend him against this bogus contempt claim. His lawyer appeared in the action and asked for a new hearing date because he was unavailable. Now pay close attention because what comes next tells you a great deal about JP Harris. This is a quote from Judge Macek's October 24, 2006, Order: "[Anderson's attorney] advised the Court that Anderson would not be available from July 14-20, 2006, due to his previously scheduled attendance at the out-of-state ATLA Convention. On July 4, 2006, Justice of the Peace Samuel L. Harris issued an Order resetting the July 3, 2006, hearing for July 17, 2006, directly in conflict with Anderson's required attendance at the ATLA Convention as a member of the executive committee." [Emphasis added]

Then, Anderson's lawyer went to Justice Court to review the file and docket sheet. Both of these documents are public record. Again, from Judge Macek's Order: "Justice Court office staff refused to provide him with a copy of the docket sheet. Upon insisting, Justice of the Peace Samuel L. Harris 'came out of his office and asked me why I wanted to see the docket sheet. I told him I wanted to see it because I had a right to see it. He refused to allow me access to the docket sheet, to see the docket sheet, or to copy the docket sheet, and told me to see Deputy County Attorney Greg Bonilla regarding it.'"

Anderson then filed a Motion to Disqualify Harris, and this motion was ignored. Ultimately, Anderson had to fly home from the previously planned convention in order to attend the hearing at a cost of about $2,200.00. At the hearing, Anderson tried to have a court reporter record the proceedings, but Harris refused to allow it.

This portion of the story tells you an incredible amount about our local Justices of the Peace. If one has the audacity to question them, one is faced with contempt proceedings. Such an individual is not even granted the common courtesy in scheduling that allows one to attend to his prior commitments. Think about that: you have to be out of state and a judge will not even give you the courtesy of respecting your schedule to re-schedule a 20 minute hearing, but instead is so petty that he purposely interrupts your trip. And then, that same judge, withholds public information as though he owns it, information you want to use to defend yourself. Is this fair? Or childish?

Next, I will write about how our 'junior' Judges got their hands slapped by District Court Judge Macek.

6 comments:

Worried said...

It amazes me how Harris can stand there and say that it is just politics and that his detractors are just upset about his success. Anyone know what he is talking about? The JP is not a political office. It is a non-partisan race. There are NO political aspects relating to this position or this race. There are significant issues relating to Harris's actions while a JP, but he refuses to address the issues and swears that there are none.
So far his sole stated sucess is that he has reduced the backlog of warrants. Not much of an accomplishment considering that you could do that by not issuing any warrants. He has not reduced crime or made Great Falls safer. I would agree that he has made some good decisions as judge. It is not his good decisions that are causing people to call for his resignation. It is the overwhelming number of bad decisions like the Larry Anderson situation that cause people to ask for a new judge. That isn't politics, it is necessity. We need a new Judge. I hope the public is getting the true picture of what is happening in Court.

Anonymous said...

This story keeps getting more and more revealing. Keep up the good work, GeeGuy.

Anonymous said...

I sure look forward to reading the rest . . . as far as a comment goes, I'm to surprised! I'd rather read your blog than the Trib!
Anon32

Liz said...

First, Freethought, I did like your soften tone of your comments regarding my view of the wives.

Keep up the good work. Waiting for "chapter two" of the Harris/Anderson events.

No more Anonymous for me . . .

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
GeeGuy said...

Some anonymous poster did not seem to understand that it is over. Thus, I deleted his/her post. It's over. No one is going to fight anymore on this site.