Wednesday, June 1, 2005
U.S. High Court Overturns Injunction That Barred Ex-Client From Picketing Johnnie Cochran
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday lifted an injunction that kept a disgruntled former client of defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran Jr. from picketing outside Cochran’s office.
Justices did not address broad free-speech questions raised by the appeal because Cochran died of a brain tumor a week after the case was argued in March.
Instead, the court ruled 7-2 that in light of Cochran’s death, a judge’s order limiting the demonstrations of Ulysses Tory “amounts to an overly broad prior restraint upon speech.”
The most conservative justices — Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — said that Cochran’s death made it unnecessary for the court to rule.
Tory argued he had a First Amendment right to picket outside Cochran’s Los Angeles office to complain about the services of Cochran, best known for defending O.J. Simpson against double murder charges.
Cochran represented Tory more than 20 years ago in a personal injury action against the City of Los Angeles after a shootout with police. Tory, however, had a dispute with the attorney, writing him in 1985 to complain that Cochran was conspiring with the city “to cover up criminal and immoral activities to private citizens for political gains.”
Tory said he would “settle” his conspiracy claims against Cochran and “refrain from any public discussions of conspiracy or scandal” if Cochran quickly paid him $10 million “or very close to it.”
Cochran’s motion to withdraw from Tory’s case was granted soon after. But 10 years later, with Cochran’s fame having soared as a result of the Simpson case, Tory again wrote to Cochran demanding payment.
Cochran did not respond to Tory’s demands until after Tory and others began picketing outside the attorney’s office and outside courthouses where he appeared. Among the messages on their placards: “Johnnie is a crook, a liar and a Thief. Can a lawyer go to HEAVEN?”; “Unless You have O.J.’s Millions—You’ll be Screwed if You USE J.L. Cochran, Esq.,”; and “DON’T LAUGH, COCHRAN SCREWED YOU GUYS TOO!”
Evidence later showed that Tory recruited the other picketers, drove them to the demonstrations, and bought them all lunch, and that Tory again wrote to Cochran, demanding money, while the picketing continued.
Following a 2002 trial, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald Sohigian permanently enjoined Tory and all persons acting in concert with him from, among other things, coming within 300 yards of Cochran or his office, from picketing Cochran or his firm, or from “orally uttering statements” about Cochran in any public forum.
The First District Court of Appeal, in an unpublished opinion by Justice Miriam Vogel of Div. One, affirmed, saying the injunction was not an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech because it dealt with a private dispute, not a public issue.
But Justice Stephen Breyer, writing yesterday for the high court majority, said that Cochran was a public figure, and that Tory’s speech was significantly restrained by the injunction. As for the trial judge’s assertion that the injunction was necessary in order to prevent Tory from picketing or denouncing Cochran as a means of coercing him into making a financial payment, that interest is obviously diminished by the lawyer’s death, Breyer said.
But Cochran’s passing does not render the case moot, the justice said, since the injunction is still in effect. “We take it as a given that the injunction here continues significantly to restrain [Tory’s] speech, presenting an ongoing federal controversy,” Breyer said.
The justices sent the case back to the California courts to determine whether there is any further need or justification for the injunction.
The limited nature of Breyer’s opinion did not stop Tory’s attorney from declaring it a victory for the First Amendment.
“It clearly reaffirms that any injunctions against speech, in a defamation case, have to be narrowly drawn,” Erwin Chemerinsky, the former USC law professor now at Duke Law School, said.
The case is Tory v. Cochran, 03-1488.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company