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Sterlings not in court as Clippers trial begins

By Sara Sidner and Steve Almasy, CNN
updated 11:09 AM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
  • Lawyer says other side calling Donald Sterling to testify was ploy to spotlight his absence
  • Trial begins in state court after federal court denied it had jurisdiction in the matter
  • Shelly Sterling wants judge to uphold her proposed sale of NBA's Los Angeles Clippers
  • The Sterlings have owned the team equally through a trust

Los Angeles (CNN) -- With neither Donald nor Shelly Sterling in the room, the trial to see who controls the Los Angeles Clippers began in a California probate court Monday afternoon.

The day started with a federal judge sending the case back to the state court, denying the claim by Donald Sterling's attorneys that his privacy rights had been violated with the release of his medical records.

With a July 15 deadline looming for the closing on Shelly Sterling's sale of the team to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, the probate trial began with some drama.

When her lead attorney Pierce O'Donnell was told he could call his first witness, he summoned Donald Sterling. Sterling was not there and the trial was briefly halted.

One of Donald Sterling's attorneys, Gary Ruttenberg, told reporters the move was a ploy meant to bring attention to his absence.

Sterlings face court trial on Clippers

After the delay, Ruttenberg requested the chance to make an opening statement, during which he declared: "The NBA wants to get rid of my client."

But Bert Fields, a lawyer for Shelly Sterling, said they were very anxious to hear from her husband.

"We want to bring him to court and let him, finally, have a little cross-examination," Fields said. "He's accusing his wife of fraud. Nonsense."

Sterling will appear in court Tuesday. Shelly Sterling came to the court Monday morning as the case was being ruled on by the federal judge but she left before the trial began in the state court.

With Donald Sterling absent, O'Donnell called Dr. Meril S. Platzer, a neurologist who examined Donald Sterling. The judge overruled his lawyer's objection to the doctor testifying.

Shelly Sterling is trying to sell the NBA team to Ballmer for $2 billion. Her husband bought the team, which he says he wants to keep, for about $12 million in 1981. The couple owns the Clippers through a trust, with each spouse being an equal trustee.

Shelly Sterling had two doctors declare her husband mentally incapacitated -- and a third doctor agreed with their assessment -- and invoked a provision in the trust that allowed her to be sole trustee.

Donald Sterling refused to sign the binding term sheet, so his wife took the matter to probate court. Donald Sterling says his wife didn't have authority to negotiate a deal with Ballmer.

Donald Sterling's lawyers have said their client was tricked into medical examinations. They also dispute their client is mentally deficient. Late last month, another doctor found Donald Sterling to be mentally fit, a source with knowledge of the situation told CNN.

Bobby Samini, a lawyer for Donald Sterling, said he looked forward to his client showing his mental acuity on the witness stand.

"I have absolute confidence that Donald's testimony is going to be very, very telling for everybody who observes it," he told reporters.

Sterling, 80, has been embroiled in controversy since a recording of a conversation with his friend V. Stiviano surfaced. The recording included a series of racist comments.

Sterling's comments, first posted on TMZ, sparked outrage among NBA players, executives and fans. The NBA commissioner fined Sterling $2.5 million and banned him for life from the NBA.

Sterling issued a statement last month in which he apologized for the remarks and said his apology was sincere.

The contract between Shelly Sterling and Ballmer has a July 15 deadline to close the deal, with a 30-day extension, if needed.

The NBA has a meeting the same day at which owners could approve the sale.

If the case drags on, the Sterlings face a September 15 deadline from the NBA to sell team.

Before the proposed sale was announced, the league had begun proceedings to terminate the Sterlings' ownership rights.

Sterlings face probate court trial on NBA's Clippers -- or do they?

CNN's Linda Hall contributed to this report.

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