Historic City Memories: Disorder in the courts

Disorder in the courts


By Geoff Dobson

The writer recently spent about a half an hour searching for a particular little book amongst the hundreds of books that seem to fill the house. Indeed, there are so many books that the spouse likens it to Thomas Wolfe’s house near Ashville.

Periodically, an effort is made to eliminate some of the books by selling some on EBay or packing them in an open carton and sneaking down to the public library early in the morning and leaving the carton of books at the door like an abandoned orphan.

Various books have accumulated over the years and they included books such as “Addresses on the Life and Character of John Warwick Daniel,” a Virginia lawyer known affectionately as the “Lame Lion of Lynchburg.”

The book being looked for, however, dated to the mid-19th Century and was on the history of St. Augustine. That was not the reason for looking for it.

Instead, inside next to the flyleaf, was a newspaper clipping which contained the obituary of an early St. Augustine lawyer. The obituary was not the glowing tribute now found in local newspapers. It described the death of the lawyer from delirium tremens in the county jail. It, of course, made the writer think of the changes that have overcome the legal profession.

Forty-Seven years ago, the Florida Bar was much smaller and everybody knew everybody.

In Gainesville, there was Sigsbee Scruggs and his partner Parks Carmichael. Various adjectives have been used to describe Scruggs, including “colorful” and “flamboyant.” So much so, that even a play has been written about him. But basically, Scruggs was an “old fashioned” country lawyer, a jack of all trades, who knew his audience; that is, he knew small town juries. Sometimes, of course, he would overdo it by coming down to small towns such as Bronson wearing a wide necktie after wide ties had gone out of style. Small town folks did not like, being looked down on.

In Jacksonville, there was C. Ray Greene, Jr. who mainly handled eminent domain cases. One year, there was an eminent domain case in Bronson, the county seat of Levy County. Although Levy County was one of the larger counties in area of the state, its population was sparse. The big seasonal event of the year was the opening of hunting season.

The night before season opening, the roads in Gulf Hammock were lined with pickup trucks and camps, waiting season opening.

Ray was not above “stunts” almost as colorful as those of Melvin Beli, the so-called “King of Torts,” who, after winning a court case, would raise a Jolly Roger flag over his office in a former bordello and fire a cannon mounted on his office roof.

One of Beli’s stunts was in a “leg-off” case; that is, a case in which the plaintiff had lost a leg in an accident. Throughout the trial, there sat on Beli’s counsel table something that looked suspiciously like a leg wrapped in butcher paper. Everyone thought, “My G–! This time Melvin has gone too far, bringing in the actual leg.” When closing came, everyone’s eyes were fixed on the butcher paper wrapped leg. It turned out it was a prosthetic leg which the plaintiff would be required to wear.

In Levy County, one of Ray Greene’s eminent domain trials was scheduled to go to the jury on the first day of hunting season. Ray was late to trial. The opposing lawyers sat at their table in three piece pin-striped suits. The jury sat dressed in hunting clothes fuming that they were going to be late out to the woods.

On the bench, sat the judge with hunting clothes beneath his robe undoubtedly thinking thoughts of contempt. When finally in came Ray dressed in his hunting clothes, he apologized to the court and jury for being late and explained that on the way to the court, he saw a beautiful ten-point buck. Pointing to a dark wet spot on his shirt he told the jury, he just couldn’t help himself, and here was the proof, the blood of buck. The jury was out very quickly and came back with a verdict for Ray.

Everyone had their favorite Ed Bush story, a former assistant state’s attorney from Palatka. In one highway condemnation case, Ed told the jury that if he were still an assistant state’s attorney, he would indict the landowners for “Highway Robbery.” Ed ultimately was employed by the state in Tallahassee. He commuted from Gainesville to Tallahassee each week in an elderly Cadillac. It was one of those Cadillacs with the huge tail fins with the tail lights set in pods toward the top of the fins. A hole had rusted through one of the fenders which Ed had covered up with a “Law Day USA” bumper sticker. The car was stolen twice. The car was so bad that the first time, the thief brought it back. The second time, the police recovered the vehicle, arrested the driver, and returned the car, before Ed missed it. The car became so unreliable, that Ed finally took the tag off, put on a piece of paper saying ‘lost tag,” and abandoned it behind a cafeteria. There it sat for six months until a young law student thought there might be value in the car.

Ed signed over the title. The law student was wrong.

There were a number of memorable attorneys in St. Augustine, Sonny Weinstein, Frank Upchurch, Sr., Hamilton Upchurch, David Parker, and Paul Martz.

One of the more memorable was Bill Zimmerman who had a sense of humor. Bill liked spicy foods. Before it was popular, he would have jalapenos on his hamburgers. The more the better. Finally, the P.K.’s where he had lunch attempted to see if they could make a hamburger that was too hot. They obtained special Indonesian peppers, supposedly the hottest in the world. He reckoned the hamburger was a bit warm. In cooking, the oil from the peppers apparently contaminated the grill, provided a surprise for the customers who got the next order of hamburgers.

On Halloween, Bill liked to dress up in a gorilla outfit which he wore to court before Judge Weinberg. The judge knew it was coming and gave no reaction, not even the glimmer of a smile. The judge would, as if there was nothing unusual, simply say, “Proceed, Mr. Zimmerman.” Often, the lawyer on the other side was one of those prim and proper young lawyers, smirking in self-satisfaction, and dressed in a dark blue suit. One tries to imagine the reaction when the young lawyer returned to his Jacksonville “silk stocking” law firm and had to tell the senior partner that he had just lost a hearing in St. Augustine to someone wearing a gorilla outfit.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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