So much for free speech

Geoffrey Fieger, the flamboyant and brilliant courtroom lawyer, has been known to be rude, crude and to say things that are in very bad taste.

Last week, however, we learned that four of the seven Michigan Supreme Court justices are far ruder, cruder, more obscene and — this is the scary part — far more dangerous than old potty mouth.

Fieger only calls people names.

Chief Justice Clifford Taylor and Justices Maura Corrigan, Stephen Markman and Robert Young attacked the U.S. Constitution and our right to freedom of speech. They did so by saying it is all right to reprimand — punish — Fieger for calling judges names.

Nobody disputes that Geoffrey Fieger did this. After all, this is a man whom I once heard tell the White House fellows in Washington, D.C., that John Engler was conceived when his father had sex with a pig.

This time, what he said was much milder. Three appeals court judges reversed a big medical malpractice verdict Fieger had won, so in 1999, he attacked them on his radio show. He called them jackasses, and suggested his client, who had only one finger, "should shove it up their asses."

When someone used the word innuendo, he said, "I know the only thing that should be in their 'endo' is a large plunger about, you know, the size of my fist." Later, he compared them to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Eva Braun. Sort of like Adolph Mongo, ahead of his time.

This led the Attorney Grievance Commission to charge the Mouth with professional misconduct, and with violating court rules that bar lawyers from engaging in undignified or discourteous conduct. For that, the commission officially issued Fieger a reprimand.

Geoffrey Fieger argued that what he said was protected, political speech. His attorney noted that he did not make the comments in a courtroom, nor during a trial.

Was it bad taste? Absolutely. But so are a lot of things in a democracy. Ever since we've had a Constitution, we've been running around saying bad things about people we don't like. Chief Justice Earl Warren, one of the greatest judges in our history, was regularly called a communist stooge — and worse — by lawyers in Congress who opposed his rulings in favor of civil rights.

President Bill Clinton was called all sorts of obscene names by lawyers in the Senate and House. Abraham Lincoln was publicly accused of being black, being part ape and of suffering from syphilis of the brain. Every day, conservatives slander liberals on the airwaves.

But the rules should be different, apparently, for our precious little sensitive Michigan judges. Justice Michael Cavanagh thought this ruling was outrageous, as did two other Michigan Supreme Court justices who care about the Constitution, Marilyn Kelly and even Elizabeth Weaver, who happens to be a Republican.

Cavanagh said the majority opinion "impermissibly exalts the protection of judges' feelings over the sanctity of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech."

Brilliantly put. And exactly correct.

Personally, I find the language repulsive and think it lowers the level of political discourse, and adds to the coarsening of our culture. Dorothy Parker would have found a much more elegant and memorable way to skewer a bunch of boobish judges.

Yet people have a perfect right to say lots of things that make you, and me, squirm. Geoffrey Fieger could never be elected to the Michigan Supreme Court, and is constitutionally unequipped to be any kind of judge.

But he has a constitutional right to call judges whose rulings he doesn't like whatever he wants, no matter how crude.

So does everybody else. Anti-abortion lawyers regularly use terms like "baby-killers" and "murderers," for those U.S. Supreme Court judges who ruled that women have a right to an abortion. Do you see anyone rushing to haul them up before the Attorney Grievance Commission?

Fieger says he will appeal this ruling to the United States Supreme Court. I hope he does, and I hope they take the case, as unlikely as that may be. For the issue is critically important.

What happens — if this ruling stands — next time a judge or former judge runs for office? Dennis Archer left the Michigan Supreme Court to run for mayor. Should Sharon McPhail have lost her law license for saying he was a fool and in the pocket of corporate interests, etc.?

Even Antonin Scalia, often seen as the most right-wing of all the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, has ruled that political speech is protected speech. If he is consistent, he'll help overturn this silly verdict. (Of course, this is the court that turned their previous rulings in favor of states' rights upside down to stop the recount in Florida.)

Incidentally, the Michigan Supreme Court has another big problem here completely separate from the merits of their Fieger ruling.

At least two of these judges had no business ruling on this case at all. Both Clifford Taylor and Stephen Markman needed to recuse — disqualify — themselves from the case because they have a clear conflict of interest. They each have an ongoing feud with Geoffrey Fieger.

Years ago, Fieger called them "mollusks and squirrels." (Come to think of it, I think he meant the entire court.) Fieger and Taylor have been going at it for years, and Taylor's wife Lucille was John Engler's top legal adviser when Fieger was running against him for governor.

Fieger also spent $457,000 on TV ads trying unsuccessfully to defeat Markman in the 2004 election. That led to an investigation against Fieger, which did not lead to any charges, and a current lawsuit by Fieger against Markman, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox and others, alleging they illegally and improperly conspired against him.

You don't have to even try to sort all of that out to see clearly that Stephen Markman and Cliff Taylor can't pretend to hand down anything like an impartial ruling on anything where Geoffrey Fieger is concerned.

Matter of fact, that is exactly what Republican Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Weaver thinks. She said that all four judges should have disqualified themselves, because their own statements showed "bias and prejudice" against the lawyer. They shot back saying that her views were based on personal resentment against them — nyah nyah nyah.

So much for the dignity of the Michigan Supreme Court. Whatever else they do against Fieger, they may not want to argue too strongly against his characterization of them as a bunch of squirrels.


The war in Lebanon: Readers have asked what I think about the current war between Hezbollah and Israel, and have asked why I haven't written about it. Some even asked if I have been prevented from writing about it. So here's the answer: I haven't written about it because I do not know enough about it. I have never been to that part of the world.

I also have no particular dog in this fight. I have no love for fundamentalism, nor for any kind of imperialism. I believe the state of Israel has a right to exist and to defend itself, but based on my nonexpert analysis, it has overreacted and may end up doing Israel as much harm as good. And I am outraged that, apparently thanks to Dubya's warped worldview, the United States did not move faster to stop the killing.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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