Mark Morris | Digesting the legal process

Mark Morris
Mark Morris

Complaints and indictments are, in so many ways, the fast food of a court reporter’s life.

When a plaintiff’s lawyers and prosecutors file them in court, the complaints burst into the headlines, brimming with delicious allegations that often cannot be answered before deadline or even before the month is out.

The excitement is over quickly and the news void must be filled by the next savory case.

Court reporters know, however, that it’s the defense lawyer who puts real fiber into a satisfying legal meal.

About 10 years ago, I covered a lurid trial in Michigan, which ended with the conviction of a woman for her role in the murder of her husband. A decade later, my kids have grown up and I’ve gotten fatter, but the woman’s appeal sits at the U.S. Supreme Court. She awaits a ruling on an abstract legal point that never came up during her trial.

If the call goes her way, the case will clatter back through a Rube Goldberg legal process that could grant her a new trial. Nurturing that appeal over so many years has taken commendable defense lawyering.

But other, more routine cases provide plenty of satisfying meals.

A lawyer defending accused sex trafficker Michael Stokes recently asked a federal judge to suppress alleged child pornography that federal agents found on his client’s computer.

Stokes acknowledged that he had voluntarily turned over his computer to FBI agents, but only to allow them to see if it contained evidence against another man. Stokes wasn’t happy when federal prosecutors charged him with possession of child porn, which the agents purportedly found as they poked around the hard drive looking for evidence against someone else.

With Stokes facing 20 years in prison, his defense lawyer had to at least give the suppression motion a shot.

Defense lawyers also have a laudable duty to consider and articulate every possible defense for their clients and not worry too much about what others think.

Lawyers representing the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph recently responded formally to a federal civil lawsuit filed by a purported victim of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, who now faces child pornography charges.

Buried deep in the filing, under the heading “Affirmative Defenses,” was this statement: “18 U.S.C. §§ 2251, 2252A, 2255, 2256 and 2259 violate the First and Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution because the statutes are overbroad by prohibiting constitutionally protected conduct.”

In English, that means the diocese’s defense lawyers announced that the church


, at some point, argue that federal laws banning the production of child pornography are too broad and that at least some of Ratigan’s alleged conduct was constitutionally protected.

Not sure that’s ever going to happen, but it’s worth chewing on.