Remember Joseph Rakofsky? He's the brand-new lawyer who thought it was prudent and appropriate to attempt, as his first trial, the defense of a man accused of murder. Havoc ensued. A federal judge granted Rakofsky's request to withdraw, which coincided with the defendant's request for a new lawyer, and granted a mistrial. In doing so the judge said that in the alternative he would have granted a new trial based on Rakofsky's incompetence:
I must say that even when I acquired [sic — probably "inquired of"] Mr. Deaner [the defendant], I — as to whether or not, when the Court found out through opening, at least near end of the opening statement, which went on at some length for over an hour, that Mr. Rakofsky had never tried a case before. And, quite frankly, it was evident, in portions of the trial that I saw, that Mr. Rakofsky — put it this way: I was astonished that someone would purport to represent someone in a felony murder case who had never tried a case before and that local counsel, Mr. Grigsby, was complicit in this.
It appeared to the Court that there were theories out there defense theories out there, but the inability to execute those theories. It was apparent to Court that there was a — not a good grasp of legal principles and legal procedure of what was admissible and what was not admissible that inured, I think, to t detriment of Mr. Deaner. And had there been — If there had been a conviction in this case, based on what I had seen so far, I would have granted a motion for a new trial under 23.110.
So I am going to grant Mr. Deaner's request for new counsel. I believe both – it is a choice that he has knowingly and intelligently made and he understood that it's a waiver of his rights. Alternatively, I would find that they are based on my observation of the conduct of the trial manifest necessity. I believe that the performance was below what any reasonable perrson could expect in a murder trial.
And later in that hearing . . .
And I think that the – As I said, it became readily apparent that the performance was not up to par under any reasonable standard of competence under the Sixth Amendment.
This was widely reported, resulting in Rakofsky suing a ridiculous array of news outlets and lawbloggers, and stubbornly pursuing those claims in what became known as "Rakofsky versus the Internet."
Last week he lost — a judge granted motions to dismiss his case. That represented two major victories last week for Marc Randazza, who not only represented many lawbloggers in Rakofsky's case, but also crushed infamous copyright troll Righthaven on appeal. This will not make him any easier to live with.
Rakofsky's lead argument was that he was defamed because his detractors reported that a judge had declared a mistrial based on his incompetence, when in fact the judge had declared a mistrial based on the defendant's request and had only said that in the alternative he would have granted a mistrial based on Rakofsky's incompetence. The correct rejection of this argument is a good example of the substantial truth doctrine, also known as the "gist" or "sting of it" doctrine — the rule that says that a statement isn't defamatory if the main insulting thrust of it is true. So, if you accuse me of molesting squirrels in a public park, and I sue you for defamation on the grounds that my companion was a chipmunk and I was in the storm drain adjacent to the park, my defamation suit against you should not survive. (Unless, I suppose, we live in a community where squirrels are held in high esteem but chipmunks are generally despised.) Here, it was patently ridiculous for Rakofksy to maintain that the "mistrial resulting from incompetence" story was meaningfully misleading or false. The trial judge was brutally frank in his evaluation of Rakofsky's ability, and trial judges don't just go around letting defendants change lawyers mid-trial for no reason.
There are a few lessons to learn from this regrettable affair.
1. Our legal system is so broken that it can take years to resolve even the most patently vexatious, harassing, and incompetently prosecuted lawsuits like this one.
2. Rakofsky doubled down. Had he slunk away after his grave error in judgment, giving thanks that his rashness did not lead to someone being convicted, he might have learned the trade, become a competent lawyer, and overcome a brief flurry of bad publicity. Instead, he chose to file a vexatious lawsuit. Now he belongs to the ages. He will never, in the half a century he has left to him, live this down.
3. Yielding to censorious thuggery like Rakofsky's is harmful to your reputation. Cowardly and unprincipled University of St. Thomas School of Law, I'm looking at you. You yielded to a frivolous suit and taught your students and alumni a terrible lesson about being a lawyer and a citizen. You encouraged vexatious and speech-chilling litigation. Let your cringing suckitude be proclaimed throughout the land.
4. Judge Wright's photon torpedo salvo notwithstanding, most judges are reluctant to award sanctions even against conduct that richly deserves it. Here the judge declined to award sanctions against Rakofksy. I'm inclined to agree with Scott that Rakofsky's youth, inexperience, and nationwide humiliation probably stayed the judge's sanctioning hand.
5. If you want the law to be an instrument of self-actualization, start a blog. Law practice — the profession of providing services to clients who need you — is not your personal voyage of self-discovery and empowerment. If you practice as a lawyer, you owe it to your clients only to do the things you are competent to do. Embarking on the defense of a man accused of murder as your first trial is a moral and ethical outrage. Regrettably, the profession is barraged with eager voices telling us that attracting clients with puffery and keywords and Twitter accounts is the way to build a practice. Nobody's reminding us that you have an obligation to know what you're doing before you accept the client. Somebody should.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Gawker, Money, Speech, And Justice - August 18th, 2016
- Lawsplainer: No, Donald Trump's "Second Amendment" Comment Isn't Criminal - August 9th, 2016
- Why Openness About Mental Illness is Worth The Effort And Discomfort - August 9th, 2016
- A Rare Federal Indictment For Online Threats Against Game Industry - July 28th, 2016
- John Hinckley, Jr. and the Rule of Law - July 27th, 2016