Stella Case No. 012, Originally Published: 16 October 2002
Columnist Jill Stewart of the now-defunct Los Angeles-based New Times L.A. newspaper got a chuckle when former mayor Richard Riordan blamed “poverty pimps” for “sucking up money that does not trickle down to the poor.”
When asked to identify who exactly he meant, Riordan went mute. So Stewart wrote a column where she “revealed” the “leading poverty pimp in Los Angeles is Danny Bakewell, founder of the Brotherhood Crusade.” She called Bakewell “a key race-baiter” who is “one of about 10 self-appointed ‘spokesmen’ for the supposed group known as the ‘L.A. black community’.”
Stewart says when she found out the multimillionaire developer had sued her for libel, she “experienced a moment of mild euphoria, like eating expensive chocolate on vacation” and “marveled over what Bakewell could possibly present in court to prove that I had libeled him by calling him a ‘poverty pimp’.”
In her response to the suit, Stewart’s defense was that Bakewell is a “poverty pimp” because he “recklessly manipulates racial divisions,” “preys upon the worst conspiratorial delusions of African-Americans for his own political gain,” and then “leverages that political power for personal enrichment,” which makes him “worse than Al Sharpton.”
Superior Court Judge John P. Shook apparently liked the argument. He not only threw the suit out, he ordered Bakewell pay the New Times $25,000 in legal fees. Bakewell quickly settled for $20,000 — which he paid with money from one of the charities he runs.
- “Pimped but Good,” New Times Los Angeles, 29 August 2002 (Note: The Los Angeles branch of the New Times chain shut down on 2 October 2002 for reasons unrelated to the lawsuit.)
Dismissed in favor of, and damages awarded to, the defendants.
Readers also wanted to reply to attorney Phil in New Jersey (see previous case):
Louis in Quebec, Canada: “Phil the New Jersey attorney says ‘Everyone seems to hate lawyers — until they need one.’ Sorry Phil, but we still hate lawyers even then. The problem is that we NEED lawyers. We can’t just reasonably explain our case to judges and have them render a decision based on reason. Our systems have been so tweaked by lawyers that we need one to navigate our way through the complexities they created. We need doctors too. We don’t hate THEM because doctors are not in the business of curing diseases that they themselves created.”
Jim in Georgia agrees: “You are not quite correct, Phil. The great unwashed throng does not hate all of the professionals in this, the greatest country on earth. We just hate the shysters, the hacks, and those that tolerate them within their own ranks. This includes attorneys, physicians and surgeons, religious leaders, politicians, and auto mechanics, to highlight just a few. Show me that you have campaigned to have some TRULY bad lawyer disbarred, and I will remove you from the list. Unfortunately this must be a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ list since there are so few than can qualify to be excluded.”
I heard from a number of lawyers, and I welcomed their letters since, indeed, my intention is to promote thought and discussion on the subject of frivolous — or apparently so — lawsuits. I ran letters as space permitted, but when I got one early on that was 935 words and ended with, “If publishing this letter will help you to [further the cause of informing the public], you have my permission to use it, as long as it is not unfairly edited.” By comparison, the entire case report above is under 250 words. I’d love to run that lawyer’s letter, but “unfair editing” is in the eyes of the beholder. “If the attorneys out there can get their main point down to a reasonably brief paragraph,” I said, “I’ll be more than happy to publish it. So please do write, but be brief! The Jurors in the Court of Public Opinion aren’t as captive as the ones you impanel.”
I continued: “I believe the bottom line is that there is a problem with the abuse of civil courts in this country, but it’s hard to tell how severe it is since the bad cases stand out so much. But we need to point out those cases as symptoms of a disease, and ‘awareness is the first step’ toward curing that disease — the public must build up understanding that the problem isn’t a funny case here and there, but case after case after case after case of abuse — until enough outrage builds and action becomes a must.
“As we see here, trial lawyers whining ‘Everybody hates lawyers until they need one’ doesn’t work. If the public’s perception of lawyers and the abuse of civil courts is wrong, it’s up to the lawyers to fix that perception. You guys have graduate degrees in arguing, yet you have allowed your fellow professionals to destroy your reputation until your whole profession is looked upon with disrespect. Since I do think there’s a big problem with the courts, I got off my ass to start a publication to explore the concept from my point of view — the public’s point of view — even though I already have a more than full-time job. The public is wrong? Then get off your asses and get to work on countering the perception. If you don’t, the public will continue to simply assume that you can’t.”
My 2020 Thoughts on the Case
I have no opinion on whether Bakewell was or is a “poverty pimp” (which the Urban Dictionary defines as “Any self appointed minority leader, who extols the perpetual poorness of their ethnicity, yet is quite well off stemming from their efforts.) That said, opinion — particularly in reference to a public figure — is absolutely protected speech, which is why the judge quickly quashed the suit and awarded fees to the defendant under the provisions of California’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) law.
SLAPPs are “lawsuits intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.” (Wikipedia) Bakewell’s attorney “clearly did not understand how powerful the SLAPP statute is,” said the New Times’ attorney Walt Sadler, quoted by Stewart in her column on the case. Sadler, who died in 2017, specialized in First Amendment (freedom of speech) cases. “But when the judge also awarded us our money, without requiring any further filings,” he continued, “I’ve never seen anything like that, and I’ve done about 30 SLAPP cases.” There will be more about SLAPPs in later cases, but the truly sad thing is, while there are anti-SLAPP laws in many states (and countries), they don’t exist in every state, nor in federal courts.
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