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Lawyer takes a stand from his cell

In the three months since he was jailed for contempt of court, attorney Richard Fine has been sitting in solitary confinement in an 8-foot by 13-foot cell with bare white walls and no windows.

What’s left of his silver-gray hair is disheveled, and a bright orange prison jumpsuit and a yellow wrist tag have taken the place of his usual dark suit and bow tie. For lunch, he gets a bologna or a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich; for dinner, two hot dogs or a white glob he assumes is breaded chicken.

This is not where the 69-year-old attorney expected to be at this stage of his life.

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Fine was sentenced March 4 to stay in jail indefinitely until he relents and complies with a commissioner’s orders to answer questions about his personal finances. But if anything, his days behind bars -- 96 and counting -- have strengthened the attorney’s resolve in his battle against the Los Angeles judiciary.

Fine has waged a decade-long battle against the Los Angeles bench, accusing judges in numerous lawsuits of being biased against people who sue the county. He argues that judges are tainted by about $46,000 in cash benefits they receive from the county on top of their state pay. His current troubles with the court, he claims, result from his legal challenges to their pay.

His critics say Fine brings up the benefits only when a judge rules against him, especially when his own attorney’s fees are at stake. His accusations have led the State Bar of California to charge him with moral turpitude and take away his license to practice law in California, a move Fine says was politically motivated.

In an interview through plexiglass and metal grates in a beige-colored visiting area in Men’s Central Jail, Fine said he has “absolutely no regret” about his current court battle. Fine, who is being housed away from the jail’s general population for his protection, said he is making the most of his experience behind bars.

He’s taken up Tai-chi, which he had put aside for a number of years because he couldn’t find the time. Going through what he can remember of the 300 moves helps him with his balance and the back pain he gets from sleeping on the thin mattress in his cell. Jail trusties call him a “reading animal” because he’s been voraciously devouring whatever books the prison library carries -- mostly mystery novels, although his reading of choice is historical biographies. Through a prison wall, he’s chatted with a man in the next cell, who told Fine he was facing 15 years to life for stealing $400 from a 7-Eleven; it was his third strike.

From his cell, Fine has continued the battle in the only way he knows how, by papering the court with writs, lawsuits and motions. After the state appellate and supreme courts declined to take up his case, he filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court, dictating it to a friend over five hours on a phone in the prison’s visiting area. Last week, he filed for yet another writ in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. His supporters earlier filed three other cases in federal court against the judge who found him in contempt, two of them in San Diego, which have all been dismissed.

In a response to Fine’s petition, an attorney for L.A. Superior Court wrote that imprisonment was not a punishment but rather the only possible way to get Fine to comply to court orders and pay sanctions and attorney’s fees.

“Fine holds the key to his jail cell,” Kevin McCormick, an attorney for the court, wrote. “By simply agreeing to answer the questions and produce documents concerning his assets, that he has a legal obligation to provide, his coercive confinement will end.”

Magistrate Judge Carla Woehrle has taken Fine’s habeas corpus petition under submission and a ruling is pending.

In the meantime, supporters -- mostly others who have felt stymied in court -- have rallied around Fine’s cause.

One is a tired resident of Marina del Rey who has felt stonewalled for more than 30 years in his legal fights against developers in his area. Another is a father who feels he was slapped with an exorbitant sum in child support by a judge and given no recourse to remedy his situation. Another is an independent television producer who had a case dismissed on what she says was a technicality while she was representing herself in the courts. Yet another is a former bus driver who believes her suit against a former employer was unfairly thrown out.

They have organized small rallies outside Men’s Central Jail demanding Fine’s release. They have sent letters to Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights and the Department of Justice. They have even started an online petition urging Fine’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court; as of Saturday afternoon, it had 68 signatures.

To his supporters, Fine’s willingness to talk back to judges and accuse them of bias and misconduct is something of an exhilarating revolt.

If Fine were released from jail, “what I would feel is hope,” said Fred Sottile, the father who said he wasn’t given a fair hearing when he was ordered to pay support for his wife and seven children at the time of his divorce in 1998. “Then I would say to myself, you know what, it is possible to get their attention.”

Supporters say their faith in Fine and his crusade is bolstered by the attorney’s lofty credentials.

Fine was raised in a middle-class family in Milwaukee, where his father upholstered furniture and his mother sold real estate. He studied psychology and took pre-med classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison until a labor history professor told him he should go to law school if he really wanted to contribute to society. He earned his law degree at the University of Chicago and a doctorate from the London School of Economics.

As an attorney, he built a reputation in the anti-trust world as a dogged attorney who pushed the envelope in the types of lawsuits he filed against government entities and large corporations. He won cases against the city and county of Los Angeles and the state of California.

His tenacity started working against him in a few cases about 10 years ago. In disputes over distributing attorney’s fees or the outcome of his cases, Fine filed numerous motions to get judges and commissioners disqualified, alleging among other things that they were biased because of the county-funded benefits.

Ever since, he has argued that every single judge on the Los Angeles bench, and any appellate judge or Supreme Court justice who formerly served in L.A. Superior Court, is biased against him and cannot rule on his cases.

Fine contends he was vindicated when a state appeals court ruled last year that the county-funded extra benefits were unconstitutional. (Fine was not involved in that lawsuit and has never sued to stop the payments.)

The state Legislature has since passed a bill enabling counties to continue paying the benefits.

“I’m right, and I’m being disbarred for being right,” Fine said. “To fight me is to fight me all the way to the Supreme Court.”

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victoria.kim@latimes.com


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