Friday, March 4, 2011

One for the Peach Tree State

Meet Marilyn Ringstaff, certified nurse midwife, graduate of John Marshall Law School, working at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and as Nurse Manager at Women of W.O.R.T.H., Inc.
Now, meet Marilyn Ringstaff who's been trying for years to get permission to take the Georgia Bar Exam.
Now, meet Marilyn Ringstaff who got the Georgia Supreme Court to rule, unanimously, in her favor.
And thereby hangs a tale.

It was a dark and stormy night.  Or maybe not.  
What it was was 2002 and Marilyn Ringstaff, then a first year law student, was driving when she had a minor traffic accident and was charged with following too closely.  She didn't like the charge, didn't think it was right.
Like any ignorant young pup of a would-be lawyer, she knew her rights and knew she was being railroaded.
[T]here was no basis in Georgia law for them to give me a ticket to begin with. I wrote a brief, – researched it very carefully and asked the judge to dismiss it. I was at the beginning – first year of law school at the time. I had no legal background and, but I still researched it very thoroughly and I was sure that I was right on it and I asked the judge to dismiss the case, and he would not.
Shocking, I know.  The judge didn't dismiss a case that the defendant thought knew believed fantasized should be dismissed.  Hell, she might even have been right as a matter of law.  Regardless, she went to trial.  She continued to represent herself (it had gone so well that far, after all), so she had, as they say, a fool for a client.  And an ignorant, young pup of a would-be lawyer for a lawyer.
The judge ruled against her time and again.  She lost.  She was fined $250.  She decided to appeal.
And, of course, because she'd demonstrated such fine ability with the legal system, she chose to represent herself on appeal.
She argued that she'd received ineffective assistance of counsel from that ignorant, young pup of a would-be lawyer.  You know how that turned out.
Here's some more of what she did.
She paid the fine, including with her payment a note to the court clerk.
The note read as follows: “April: Thanks for taking care of this - keep the change [smiley face] put it into a police/judicial education fund. I can certainly say this has been an educational experience. I’m now a second-year law student and can honestly relate to what a crooked and inequitable system of ‘justice’ we have. The money was well-spent, I’m sure it will make me a better attorney [smiley face]. Marilyn Ringstaff.” The Board [don't worry; we'll get to the Board in a bit] did not include a quotation that follows Ms. Ringstaff’s name on the note and which states: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
OK, probably not a great idea.  Smiley faces be damned.  Still, "April" was, Ringstaff said, a friend.
Maybe April was a friend.  Not so the Board.
The Board is the Georgia Board to Determine Fitness of Bar Applicants.  
Their evaluation?
Unclean! Unclean! Keep Away!
Or something like that. Though, to be fair, they didn't actually accuse her of leprosy or carrying plague. 
Of course, the Board also said that Ringstaff
made remarks during her informal interview with the Board that the Board described as indicating applicant was “sure” she had been right in her belief that the ticket should have been dismissed; that “every police officer lies[;]” that the police officer who issued the citation had committed perjury when the officer testified about the citation because the officer had issued the ticket based on the word of two “unreliable” witnesses; and that the trial judge knew the officer had committed perjury.
Ringstaff filed an answer to the charges and the Georgia Supreme Court appointed a hearing officer. 
The hearing officer found by clear and convincing evidence that Ringstaff possessed the integrity and good character to be certified fit to practice law, concluded that the evidence presented against
Ringstaff bore upon her competence rather than her character and fitness, and recommended that Ringstaff be permitted to sit for the Georgia bar exam.
But the Board

Unclean! Unclean! Keep Away!
See, she hadn't shown, the Board said, that she had rehabilitated herself.  After all, she blamed Alan Dershowitz.
When asked what she had meant when she wrote to the trial court clerk [You remember April] that the system of justice was crooked and inequitable, Ms Ringstaff stated:
Well, maybe I can explain. When I started in criminal law, I remember studying some of the writings of Alan Dershowitz and one of the articles that we read was his article that said, “every police officer lies– every district attorney knows that every police officer lies – every superior court judge knows that every district attorney knows that every police officer lies and every appeals court judge knows that a superior court judge knows that every district attorney knows that every police officer lies” and I would never have believed that had I not experienced that myself because those officers lied on the stand and the district attorney knew that they were doing it and, I believe, the Superior Court Judge knew it. It was just a great miscarriage of justice and I still stand by those words.
OK, maybe she shouldn't have done that.
But, said the unanimous Supreme Court of Georgia, rehabilitation doesn't apply here.  The Board treated incompetence, which Ringstaff demonstrated at trial and on appeal, as a "moral character and fitness" flaw, the court said.  In fact,
The transcript of the informal hearing reflects that there is no evidence supporting the specifications listed by the Board and the conclusion drawn by the Board.
. . .
We conclude from our review of the record that Ms. Ringstaff established that she possesses the integrity and character required to be a member of the State Bar of Georgia. Inasmuch as the Board’s grounds for finding otherwise are not supported by the record, we reverse the decision of the Board and direct that it issue a certificate of fitness to practice law to Ms. Ringstaff.
I don't mean to be invading Brian Tannebaum's territory by writing about Ringstaff's case (though I'm not aware that an iPod or iPad was part of her problem).
What I'm interested in is that in Georgia, at least if you aren't licensed to practice law, it's not the kiss of death to suggest that a judge is dishonest and the system corrupt.  While in Ohio and Indiana, at least if you are licensed to practice law, you have to keep those thoughts secret.
I've never met Marilyn Ringstaff.  I first learned that she existed an hour or so before I started writing this.  I have no idea whether she'll pass the bar exam.  I have no idea whether she'll be competent to practice law if she does.  But as David Lat points out at Above the Law 
Based on her LinkedIn profile and her blog, she definitely seems like a good-hearted person, who wants to use law and public health to make the world a better place.
That's no small thing.
Glad Georgia's going to at least give her a chance to try.

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