In her never-ending quest to log more billable hours, Sarasota lawyer Lilly Cleary agrees to defend Angus and Miguel, two fervent environmentalists who are being sued for libeling . . . an orange! In the Sunshine State, people take their citrus seriously—and there are powerful interests that refuse to sit idly by while a pair of whistle-blowing rabble rousers demean Florida's main cash crop.
Though the orange affair isn't quite the juicy case Lilly was looking for, it gets a lot stickier when one of the defendants is blown to bits right in front of her. Not one to take losing a case—or a client—lightly, whole-grain-loving, toxin-phobic Lilly will stop at nothing to get to the truth behind this and assorted other related murders. Which won't be easy, since everyone is lying—including the surviving environmentalist, who just happens to have an advanced degree from the University of the Streets . . . in bomb-making.
About the Author
A former appellate attorney and former member of the writing faculty at Florida State University College of Law and the University of Oregon School of Law, Claire Hamner Matturro lives in Georgia.
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By Claire Matturro
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Claire Matturro
All right reserved.
The practice of law is best performed by lunatics. That way, they don't mind that much of the law is lunacy.
For example, in Florida, insulting an orange can land you in court.
One may be sued for defaming a little, round fruit. Sued and required to pay money. If not to the orange grower suing you, then certainly to the lawyer defending you.
I, Lillian Belle Rose Cleary, defense lawyer, sat in my office at Smith, O'Leary, and Stanley in Sarasota, with the Florida statutes book opened to section 865.065, titled "Disparagement of perishable agricultural food products," and tried to absorb the concept of fruit libel. As I read, my putative new client, Angus John Cartright, a rough-and-ready young man wearing jeans and cowboy boots, sat across from me whistling what sounded like a slow version of "The Yellow Rose of Texas."
Because I didn't like what I was reading in the statutes, I put down the law book and picked up a copy of the complaint filed against Angus John, a legal document that said he had willfully and wantonly and maliciously given speeches in which he claimed certain, specific oranges "glowed in the dark" and were unsafe to eat.
"Is this true?" I asked, holding up the complaint. "I mean, that you said all this about these orangesbeing too dangerous to eat?"
"Yes." He had stopped whistling and stared at me with big, hazel eyes.
"The complaint also alleges you did so without having any reliable evidence to support your claims. Did you have any scientific studies to back up your statements?"
"It's a matter of common sense."
Oh, so, okay, in other words, no. Well, as much as Angus John's admission of the key facts in the complaint against him might simplify drafting an answer and pursuing discovery, it didn't make his case too enticing to defend. I mean, where's the fun in litigation if the did/did-not spat wasn't there at the get-go to run up thousands of dollars in attorney's fees arguing about who said or didn't say what, not to mention revving up that dog and pony show before a jury.
"The plaintiff is suing you because you publicly said its oranges were--"
"I have an absolute First Amendment right to speak my mind," Angus John said, and then grinned big, as if he'd just told me a small joke, which, in a way, I guess he had. "They can't sue me."
Okay, so spank me, I'm no constitutional scholar or anything, but I've been a lawyer for over a decade and one of the lessons I've learned is that there are no absolute rights. Especially absolute First Amendment rights.
Just as I was fortifying myself to explain the underlying basic premise of the American litigation system to Angus, that being that anyone with the $250 filing fee can sue anybody else, I heard an insistent tapping of fingernails on glass. Angus and I both turned to stare out my office window, which looks out on our back parking lot since my office is on the first floor, in the back corner, right by the exit.
A thin, older man grinned through the glass panes.
I sighed. Jimmie Rodgers, my handyman, the man who had single-handedly and largely on his hands and knees restored my home's terrazzo floors to their former glory, rebuilt my back porch after one of those hurricanes, and done countless other home projects, all working roughly at an inch of progress and two bottles of wine an hour. He liked to quote poetry of all kinds to me, and had slipped me small paperbacks of poets I'd never heard of who wrote stuff I didn't understand. Then Jimmie would explain it all to me over a couple of bottles of wine. He was, of late, particularly fond of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and could recite long poems about suicide by either or both of them at length and by memory. This explained why he was erratically employed. The man does good work, but don't hire him if you're in a hurry, or a hard-shell Baptist, or don't like poetry.
Jimmie tapped and grinned and I made my face form a kind of smile back. On top of being my handyman, he was also my client in what I considered the stupidest case of my entire career.
Ignoring my orange-defaming potential client, I jumped from my chair and aimed myself for the back door to let Jimmie in.
When Jimmie came into my office, he smelled a bit gamey, but before I could say much to him about washing up before his court appearances, he beamed, hugged me, said a quick, "Hey, Lady," then took center stage in my office. Spreading his arms wide, he said in a singsongy voice: " 'I danced through the shards with no visible wound. The night I risked tequila and Seconal to stop you both, I woke.' "
Great, another suicidal poet.
"That's from this book"--Jimmie pulled a beat-up chapbook from a pocket in his baggy painter's pants--"I found at Brant's Used Books on Brown Avenue. Only paid a quarter for it."
Angus John made a production of standing up and grinning and offering his hand. But Jimmie, caught up as he was with poetry and gift giving, didn't fully focus on Angus and thrust the book at me. "It's for you, Lady."
Politeness required me to take the used book, but I tried to hold it with my fingernails as if it were hot, and I made a quick memo to my internal file to disinfect my hands as soon as possible and to put the book somewhere safe, like a trash can.
Angus, having been ignored by both Jimmie and me, cleared his throat. I was too busy trying not to actually touch the book I was now holding to acknowledge Angus, and Jimmie apparently hadn't yet realized someone else was already in my office.
Excerpted from Bone Valley by Claire Matturro Copyright © 2006 by Claire Matturro. Excerpted by permission.
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