May 23, 2010
Posted: 09:57 PM ET
When I hear the term “contempt of court,” I right away imagine one of those courtroom dramas on TV, where some guy is yelling at a judge, the judge gets mad, and screams out from behind the bench, “I find you in contempt of court!” The belligerent person screams some kind of obscenity back, and is then handcuffed and hauled away by a bailiff. On TV, he’s let out of jail a day or two later when tempers have calmed down and egos have been set aside. But that’s TV. It’s a much different scenario for Richard Fine who has been held in contempt of court for 14 months now.
Fine is not a criminal – he’s a 70-year-old former Beverly Hills attorney, once known for his bow-tie.
He considers himself a “political prisoner.” He’s been held in solitary confinement for more than one year (jail officials say that’s because other inmates could harm him), and he says he’s only been outside for about nine hours since he’s been locked up.
According to court documents, Fine is in jail because he refused to produce financial documents and answer questions when ordered to pay the other side’s attorney’s fees. That’s when Judge Yaffe put Fine in contempt of court, until Fine decided he wanted to give the court what it requested.
Well, so far, Fine is not in the mood to cooperate. Fine believes he is being held in contempt for a very different reason. He says Judge Yaffe, and other L.A. County Superior Court judges, have accepted what he calls “bribes” from the county. Fine argues the “bribes” create a conflict of interest for judges in cases where the county is a party to the lawsuit. He feels the judges should be disqualified from those cases.
L.A. County judges really do receive extra benefits from the county on top of their six-figure state salary. It’s a practice common in California that was retroactively made legal, after a 2008 case against L.A. County found the payments unconstitutional.
The county says the extra cash is a type of “supplemental benefit” that helps to attract and retain quality judges in a high-cost city. Fine doesn’t buy that argument, so for the past decade, he’s been going after judges and has tried to expose what he considers a “corrupt judicial system.”
But for the purpose of this blog, let’s put the details of his history aside for a moment, and just focus on why court officials say he’s in jail. It’s because he doesn’t want to hand over his financial records or answer questions. He is being held in what is called “coercive confinement.”
That means, unless he does what the judge wants him to do, he will remain in jail – in his case, indefinitely. It’s like the world’s longest timeout. Fine does not want to cooperate because he says he will lose his chance to appeal his case against Judge Yaffe, if he ever gets out of jail. But when does this stop being productive and start becoming a waste of everyone’s time?
Of course, we tried contacting Judge Yaffe. And of course, he said he did not want to talk to us about this case since it’s ongoing.
What will happen if Fine refuses to cooperate, and Judge Yaffe doesn’t put an end to this? Could this go on for another year, or maybe even more? At what point does “coercive confinement” become nothing more than an indefinite jail sentence.
Oh, and one more thing. In the last couple of months, L.A. County Jail released about 200 inmates before their terms were up because of budget shortages. A spokesman for the jail told me they sure could use Fine’s cell for real criminals.
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