It's impossible to satirise a Los Angeles judge

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

LANDMARK decision by the US Supreme Court that a rap group could not be stopped from making a parody of Roy Orbison's Oh, Pretty Woman is the toast of humorists, artists and guardians of free speech. But it won't will not have bought brought much cheer to the hearthside of Ricardo Torres, a judge in Los Angeles.

For several years, Judge Torres has been locked in a fierce dispute with the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, a tiny daily newspaper serving the city's legal community, which centred on an unusual spoof.

The feud began three years ago when the Judge Torres was 'presiding judge' at the Los Angeles County Superior Court. The newspaper's editor, Roger Grace, felt his manner was overbearing and imperious and said so. One editorial described him as a 'despotic twit'.

Matters came to a head when , on a whim, Mr Grace penned a bogus memorandum from Judge Torres. , which was circulated around the court buildings. This declared the Metropolitan News-Enterprise to be 'contraband', and warned the judge's colleagues to forgo any after-hours 'amorous escapades' as he has had ordered an officewide search for copies of the offending publication.

Judge Torres was not amused. After hauling three of the leafleteers into court, He sued the paper for libel. The memo was taken seriously by some of his peers and made him look foolish, he said.

As in the Oh, Pretty Woman case (a case over copyright, rather than libel), the satirists prevailed. The California Courts of Appeal threw out the defamation case, arguing that no reasonable person would have been daft enough to think have thought that the memo could genuinely have come from the pen of a Californian judge. From 'the Pickwick Papers . . . to Monty Python of the early 1970s, judges and the judiciary have been fair game', said the court's majority opinion.

However, reasonable people are one thing, judges you might argue are quite another. 'Los Angeles' legal history does not lack examples of the occasional judge gone off the beam,' wrote one dissenting appeals court judge, Justice Thomas Crosby.

, in a dissenting opinion.

And he gave examples: one member of the judiciary judge kept a mechanical canary in her chambers and a live dog with her on the bench, made a habit of locking up court-appointed defence lawyers and once threatened to shoot the manager of her apartment. Another remains notorious in LA's legal circles for a prodding a lawyer with a dildo.

A third personally arrested a local bureaucrat, hauled him into court and adjudged him in contempt, because the man (acting under orders from superiors) refused to supply him with a plane ticket for a lobbying trip to Sacramento, the state capital. Justice Crosby omitted to mention a fourth, who became something of a local legend because he insisted on wearing his courtroom garb at the family dinner table, where his family were under instructions to refer to him only as 'Your Honour'.

But he Justice Crosby concluded, alarmingly: 'The appeal court judges have rose-coloured glasses on if (they) think that people familiar with the local legal scene could not be taken in by the phony memo. Stranger, much stranger, things have come from Los Angeles judges.'