Anaheim, Rams Consider Mistrial Bid in Stadium Suit
Concerned that a courtroom clerk’s actions may have “tainted” a $100-million lawsuit involving the City of Anaheim, the California Angels and the Los Angeles Rams, attorneys for the city and the Rams said Wednesday that they are considering a request for a mistrial.
“We have mixed emotions about it (filing for a mistrial) because we have invested literally millions of dollars in this trial,” said Alfred E. Augustini, an attorney for the heirs of the late Rams owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, and a Boston-based developer.
“The idea of starting over is a frightening prospect,” he said. “And financially speaking, it would be a terrible sacrifice. But we think it’s that serious.”
At stake is a legal battle involving Anaheim, the Rams, the Boston firm and the Angels over plans for a $200-million office complex on a portion of the Anaheim stadium parking lot. The Angels filed suit more than two years ago to block the project, which is endorsed by the city and the Rams, contending that it would take away too many surface parking spaces for baseball fans.
The trial is still months from completion. Yet Augustini and other attorneys for Anaheim said there might be a need to seek a mistrial as a result of an invitation to a campaign fund-raiser that was recently sent out for Marshall F. Norris, the clerk in the courtroom where the trial has been going on for more than four months.
The invitation for Norris, who is running for county clerk, bears a picture of Norris shaking hands with Gene Autry, owner of the Angels baseball team, in the courtroom.
Augustini said the invitation “from an appearance standpoint--and I’m emphasizing appearance--looks like an attempt by Mr. Autry to curry favor with the clerk. I personally don’t think Mr. Autry was trying to do that. But that is certainly what it looks like.”
Expressing regrets that his actions may affect the case, Norris on Wednesday reiterated previous statements that he has done nothing wrong. “I don’t make the decisions here,” he said. “And what I do and what I say doesn’t influence the judge. . . . I can’t even influence him to go to lunch with me.”
Last week, Norris was criticized by several judges and attorneys for Autry’s endorsement and also for allegedly misusing county telephones in his campaign. On Friday, a Superior Court executive committee--citing “the appearance of impropriety"--ordered Norris reassigned to another courtroom during the duration of the trial.
On Monday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Frank D. Domenichini called attorneys from the various parties into his chamber to hand them copies of the invitation and news articles covering the controversy. Attorneys present said Domenichini reiterated the statements he made to them in chambers immediately upon beginning the day’s proceedings in court.
According to court records, the judge explained that he handed out the copies because ". . . there is an appearance that the court process is being interfered with by political activity, and I think that is very serious. And I want all counsel to know that if you have anything to state for the record or want to make any motions or anything, that you can do it right now. We will act on it.”
While an Angels attorney said he did not have any comments or motions to make, attorneys for the city and Anaheim Stadium Associates said they needed to confer with their respective clients.
Michael D. Rubin, one of several attorneys representing Anaheim from the private law firm of Rutan & Tucker, met with City Council members Tuesday in closed session.
Anaheim officials are concerned about getting “a fair trial that isn’t tainted by anything that appears to be improper,” Rubin said Wednesday.
Bill Wynder, an attorney also with Rutan & Tucker, said Anaheim officials will consider “anything from doing nothing at all to requesting a mistrial.” Anaheim Mayor Don Roth said late Wednesday afternoon that no decision from the city is expected until later this week.
Meanwhile, Norris, whose actions sparked the controversy, said it would be “foolish for the defendants to ask for a mistrial or motion (for a new judge.)”
“I have never, ever influenced a judge’s opinion,” Norris said. “He doesn’t ask me and I don’t offer. I’m like an orderly for the general.”
A courtroom clerk for more than 20 years, Norris processes case files, motions, judges’ orders and is in charge of exhibits. He also swears in jurors and processes verdict and sentencing documents.
‘Shame That This Happened’
Attorneys representing all parties echoed Rubin’s words when he said that “from a personal viewpoint, Marshall Norris has done a fine job in court and has been of assistance to all counsel and it’s a shame that this happened.”
But regardless of their high regard for Norris, attorneys expressed concern about the appearance of a conflict.
“There is an old adage that if you can convince the clerk and the bailiffs in the courtroom, that you’re ahead of the game,” said Thomas S. Salinger, an attorney representing Anaheim.
Augustini said late Wednesday that his clients were leaning toward requesting a mistrial “simply because it’s too big a case. No one wants the conclusion, whether it’s good or bad, (to be) a conclusion that is hanging under some cloud.”
Augustini said he would prefer to leave the situation unchanged, but “our clients, because they have not seen Judge Domenichini the way we have for the last five months,” were “drawing conclusions” that the judgment may not be impartial.
“Personally, I--as the lead trial lawyer--look forward to the prospect of starting this trial over again like getting a terminal disease,” Augustini said.
‘Back to Square One’
William Campbell, an attorney representing the Angels, said: “We do not feel that anything that happened should have any impact on the case. We saw no reason for any action of any kind.
“A mistrial would mean we’re back to square one.” And so far, each party has spent “somewhere in the neighborhood of several million dollars,” he estimated.
At stake in the suit are several issues, including a $200-million development that has never left the drawing board.
As part of the deal that lured the Rams to play football at Anaheim Stadium, the city promised them part of the stadium parking lot for a multimillion-dollar high-rise development. The project was to be sponsored by Anaheim Stadium Associates, a joint venture between Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, the Boston-based firm, and RAMCO, a trust for Rosenbloom’s heirs.
The Angels said they never authorized the development, which they contend takes away surface parking spaces from fans. Saying the development would violate their lease with the city, the Angels filed a lawsuit Aug. 8, 1983.
A trial finally got under way on Dec. 9, 1985, with Angels attorneys just now winding up their presentation. Unless a mistrial is requested--and granted--the trial is expected to go on for several more months, attorneys said Wednesday.
The fact that Autry would endorse Norris’ campaign is not a surprise. More than a month ago, the judge in the case and attorneys from all sides said they had no problem with Autry’s backing Norris’ election bid. However, attorneys from the city and Anaheim Stadium Associates said Wednesday that they were not aware that Norris’ campaign would distribute an invitation to a fund-raiser showing a photograph of himself with Autry.
Unaware of Distribution Plan
Neither was Autry, Campbell said. Norris acknowledged that Autry did not say he would attend or host the dinner. But “normally, when you get an endorsement, they give you their complete support,” Norris said, adding that he never expected to request or receive campaign contributions from Autry.
“I wouldn’t take any money from him,” Norris said. “And I don’t think he would ever offer any. Gene Autry is one of the few true, honest people I’ve ever met in my life.
“If it was an impropriety, obviously I have to take responsibility for it.”
Then, citing one U.S. president, two California governors, several state senators, county officials and others who he said have had their pictures shot in front of “the Great Seal of the State of California” while the courtroom was not in session, Norris added:
“I’ve never seen anyone chastised for it except Marshall F. Norris.”