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Entertainment Law

When I first got to law school, part of my indoctrination was mandatory training on Lexis/Nexis. Lexis is an online information storehouse containing a vast array of documents. Court cases, media articles, property records, reference materials, campaign disclosure forms--you name it and Lexis probably has it. Ostensibly, these training sessions teach us to do legal research. In reality, it's to get us hooked so once we're out of school and no longer have free access, we have no choice but to pay the ungodly fees.

In any case, my trainer was a lovely young woman with a light French accent who proceeded to guide us through the wonders of the Lexis universe. She showed us how the system was organized, how to conduct boolean and freestyle searches, where to find certain documents, how to zip right to a statute or case. Finally, when time was about up, her lips curled into a sly smile and she skipped to the front of the room. "One final review," she said while scrawling a case cite on the white board and suppressing a giggle, "Look up this case, and then we're done."

Dutifully, I punched in the citation and on my screen popped Reuther v. Southern Cross Club, Inc. Uninterested, I pushed return and the next screen came up. The court's opinion began:

'Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale' of what happened when David Reuther, while vacationing in the Cayman Islands at the Pirates Point Resort hotel decided to go SCUBA diving -- 'a fateful trip that started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship.' n1
Those of you versed in such things will immediately recognize this as a none-too-subtle parody of the Gilligan's Island theme song. I did. My interest growing, I continued reading the footnote. "We quote with reference (and apologies)," wrote the court, "the theme song from the syndicated 1960's sit-com television favorite, 'Gilligan's Island.'" Then it proceeded, at Mr. Reuther's expense, to do just that: "Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip, that started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship...." (By the way, I defy anyone to read that without actually breaking into song.)

The court's levity didn't stop there. Throughout its statement of the facts, it repeatedly sewed into the actual facts the events of Gilligan's ill-fated trip. For instance, "[A]s [the dive boat] entered a channel in the barrier reef that surrounds Little Cayman, 'the weather started getting rough' (a huge wave struck the dive boat) and 'the tiny ship was tossed.'" Suffice it to say, the entire case runs like this, as I discovered after reading screen upon screen. By now, our trainer was near hysterical (this is how we have fun in law school), and my interest was piqued.

Curious, I did a search for "Gilligan's Island" which uncovered six other references in the annals of modern jurisprudence. A few were contract disputes between syndication outfits; one was a murder case in which witnesses identified the suspect by his "Gilligan" hat. Still another was a tax case authored by the Ninth Circuit's very own Judge Kozinski (remember this name; it pops up again), then chief judge of the U.S. Claims Court. Notwithstanding the dizzying number of television references in Judge Kozinski's opinion, I was starting to lose interest in Gilligan et al. when it caught my eye: Unruh v. Hale. That's right: Alan "Skipper" Hale (which, by the way, is how he's actually listed among the parties: Alan "Skipper" Hale) was once a codefendant in a civil RICO action. More specifically, he was the spokesman for Nulon, an engine lubricant, when Unruh sued, claiming a conspiracy to defraud.

The Skipper's predicament got me wondering what other celebrities had managed to worm their way into our nation's case reporters. So I recently started searching, and the results are more than a little disturbing. Demi Moore, for instance, had one reference in, of all things, a sexual harassment case. Ring any bells? It should: to the tune of "Michael Douglas" or "Disclosure." The Michael Crichton novel-turned-film received mixed reviews when it was released, but it caught at least one judge's attention. In the midst of his opinion, he actually felt the need to discredit Disclosure's premise of women sexually harassing men. "Atypical," he called it. It's a film, I say.

That wasn't the only opinion to fall back on a Michael Douglas film. In New Jersey, officials at a junior high school banned student reviews of R-rated films from the school newspaper. The court upheld the school officials' actions, saying it was a legitimate pedagogical concern. As support, a concurring judge cited Basic Instinct's opening scene in which Sharon Stone "sits astride" a male, then pokes holes in him with an ice pick. This, the judge suggested, is not the sort of film a junior high school paper should talk about. To my knowledge, the court never addressed the question how junior high school kids were getting into R-rated films to begin with.

Action stars are big in lawsuits. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for instance, attracts intellectual property suits like poop does flies. He's been sued or mentioned in copyright suits for Terminator 2, Predator, Predator 2, and the Conan series. For color, however, none of them compares to the case where a cop proudly testified that being hit with a taser gun is "like being hit on the back with a four-by-four" by Schwarzenegger. Indeed. Clint Eastwood garnered 21 mentions, mainly because of his ground-breaking 1983 suit against the National Enquirer which helped establish a right of publicity for public figures. I wonder if he'll sue Chicago gang member Clinton Patterson. Among the several gang members who go by the names of Nap, Spanky, P-Stone, Solid-T, G-Ball and Buck, Patterson's sobriquet is the rather banal "Clint Eastwood."

Sylvester Stallone has been involved in everything from property disputes with the ex-wife of Donald Sutherland, to contract disputes over three paintings he allegedly made then sold, to libel suits over statements involving the aforementioned paintings. Stallone also spends an inordinate amount of time defending himself in copyright suits over really bad movies. One writer claimed Stallone appropriated much of Rocky IV from the writer's 30-page treatment. My advice to the writer: Walk away; it's Rocky IV. Another writer claimed Stallone and Joe Eszterhas (Jade, Showgirls, Basic Instinct) stole his idea for F.I.S.T. And, frankly, I believe him: F.I.S.T. didn't have any lesbians.

By the far the best mention, though, goes to Bruce Willis. J. Kahn sued the Unitarian Church of Kensington County; its pastor, Rev. Bowkie; the government of Great Britain; and NASA. Why, you ask? Kahn, in what the court described as a "forty-two page run-on sentence," alleged that NASA, Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Margaret Thatcher, Diane Feinstein, James McDougal (from Whitewater), the United States Agency for International Development, Jimmy Stewart and Rock Hudson all conspired to defraud the American public by (a) continuing research for the Strategic Defense Initiative; (b) smuggling heroin in Pakistan; (c) recruiting a private army of "Nerks or Norks"; and (d) recruiting "G-2 gay or homophile agents to spread perversion and vice worldwide." In a separate complaint, Kahn alleged that President George Bush, Sen. Orrin Hatch, the British Royal family, Intel, Jane Fonda, Ted Turner, several British film actors, a communist-CIA network and the secret police of Rio de Janeiro conspired to conduct, among other things, "a secret black/white war using bodily fluid as weapons of war." Finally, Kahn alleged Rev. Bowkie (a warlock, by the way) and the Unitarian church conspired with the CIA, a Pakistani judge, Paul Newman and, at last, Willis to "produce fetuses by in vitro fertilization and 'to feed off of them (kill them) and to plant them by surgical operation ... into their Brain-Pans.'" Well.

Compared to action stars, talk show hosts are rather dull. David Letterman popped up nine times, mainly as a point of reference: three times in Tom Waits's suit against Frito-Lay for voice misappropriation and false endorsement; once in a suit between Don King, Donald Trump and then-heavyweight champion of the world, James "Buster" Douglas; and once in describing Nightlife, David Brenner's defunct late-night talk show. In the latter, the district court said Nightlife was a "slick, network quality production" like Letterman and Johnny Carson. I'm no lawyer, but that sounds to me like grounds for defamation.

Jay Leno is even more dull, recording a measly two references. In one, Leno's was just one in a long laundry list of names for which a recording company had merchandising rights. In the other, comedian Jeff Foxworthy dropped Leno's name during testimony in the former's suit against a T-shirt company. Foxworthy claimed the company had stolen his catchphrase, "You might be a redneck if..." Seems the T-shirt company was inverting things, so instead of "You might be a redneck if you've ever financed a tatoo," the shirts read, "If you've ever financed a tatoo, you might be a redneck." Feeling pluckish, the district court even got into the act, entitling its headings "Plaintiff Might be Likely to Succeed on the Merits If..." and "Plaintiff Might Suffer Irreparable Injury If..." I'll reserve comment on the matter, except to say you might hate Jeff Foxworthy even more if... you ever read his jokes in legalese.

Even more absent than talk show hosts are women and blacks. Denzel Washington, for instance, had no mentions. Wesley Snipes captured only one. Morgan Freeman seemed to break the mold with 9 mentions. Two were for Bonfire of the Vanities, in which he played a judge at the historical Essex County courthouse. The other seven, however, turned out to be dead ends. Three involved a law firm, Morgan & Freeman; another was a case: Morgan v. Freeman.

Women encountered much of the same. Three of the hottest females in Hollywood, Sandra Bullock, Sharon Stone and Julia Roberts, garnered a total of just three mentions. You already read Stone's. Roberts popped up in a case where Time magazine sued Lyle Lovett and a concert promoter to recover photographs of Lovett and Roberts on stage, the latter in her wedding dress. At Lovett's behest, security thugs confiscated the photos and the camera, but the district court ordered Lovett to give them back. Strangely enough, it was the same judge who previously opined to the tune of Gilligan's Island. Thankfully, this time she refrained from breaking into Pretty Woman.

Unfortunately, if you want to talk female actresses, your best bet is Traci Lords. As you might guess, all her mentions come in cases involving her under-age porn films. Among them is yet another opinion by Judge Kozinski who, notwithstanding the Gilligan judge, may be the biggest pop culture freak of all. In one case having nothing to do with entertainment, he cited Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" to support the proposition that unmarried couples in common law states can separate whenever they please. ("Just slip out the back, Jack.") What's more, between the Lords case, the Gilligan's Island tax case (which was actually about The New Bill Cosby Show and The Joker's Wild) and an opinion on Vanna White's right of publicity claim against Samsung, I estimate that he's made more than 300 references to entertainment-based subjects. And that's a conservative guess. Fitting for a judge who was profiled in George and who once referred to his court as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Hollywood Circuit.

There are others, far too many for me to make this a comprehensive survey. So I'll just note some of the more interesting ones. In 1992, a man sued claiming to be the "possessor" of a "valid U.S. Presidency." He alleged that Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders was his wife, and that she refused to communicate with him. Sounds like a Hillary-Bill marriage. Then there was the suit by celebrity attorney Gerry Spence against Larry Flynt and Hustler magazine. Spence didn't take kindly to being tabbed "Asshole of the Month," after he represented Andrea Dworkin in a suit against the magazine. If nothing else, the Spence case is notable for being the only opinion in our nation's history to contain the expression "shit-squeezing sphincter," Hustler's description of Dworkin.

Ernest Borgnine snared one mention. Two Canadians and three Mississippians attended a series of social events in Indianapolis over the 1975 Memorial Day weekend. To put it mildly, they didn't get along. At a party in Borgnine's honor, one of the Canadians "intentionally annoyed [a Mississippian] by staring at him." Eventually the Mississippians assaulted the Canadians, and this suit for damages ensued. Steven Seagal also garnered one mention, in a rape case. The defendant testified that the alleged victim, Curley, had told him to ask his friend Nardi if Nardi would sleep with Curley. Curley supposedly found Nardi attractive because he bore a certain resemblance to Seagal. This, of course, is absurd; no one is sexually attracted to wood.

For the final say in silly entertainment references, though, we return to Stallone. Specifically, the California appellate court which felt compelled to inject a note of caution into its opinion. While resolving questions about a police interrogation, the court, out of the blue and for no apparent reason, warned: "The view of a police officer, played by Sylvester Stallone, in the movie 'Nighthawks' giving Miranda rights while dragging a suspect by the hair along a subway platform is better cinematography than constitutional law."

Oh, really. Thanks for clearing that up.


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