The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to consider the case of a 70-year-old taxpayer advocate from Tarzana who has languished in jail for more than a year in what he claims is retaliation for his efforts to cut the pay of Los Angeles County judges.
Attorney Richard I. Fine, 70, has been held in the Men's Central Jail for contempt of court in what is legally termed "coercive confinement" ‐ an effort by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to force him to divulge financial information.
Fine contends the jailing is revenge for his campaign to force Los Angeles County to stop paying judges an extra $57,000 per year on top of their state salaries of $179,000.
"The fact the Supreme Court is involved in any way is a big deal," said Brooklyn Law School Professor Jayne Ressler, an expert in coercive confinement cases.
"It certainly speaks volumes to the importance of this case, and it's quite intriguing."
While the main issue before the high court is whether a person can be held in coercive confinement for such a long time, Fine remains hopeful the justices will also consider the issue of judges' pay.
If Fine succeeds, potentially thousands of cases involving Los Angeles County could be thrown into question, because attorneys could claim the judges were biased in favor of a party in the case that was paying some of their salaries.
"That would mean we would finally after 23 years be cleaning up the California court system," Fine said in a telephone interview from his jail cell.
Fine's appeal of his confinement was rejected by the 9th Circuit Court before he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The issue of judges' pay is currently pending in a separate case before the California Supreme Court.
Meeting in private, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to consider Fine's appeal in a conference hearing on April 23.
A Supreme Court spokesperson confirmed that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg placed the case on the calendar, but the court generally does not discuss why it chooses to take up certain cases.
The court receives about 10,000 applications and petitions a year and only considers about 80 to 90 of them.
On the verge of losing his Tarzana home to foreclosure and suffering from deteriorating health, Fine has spent more than 13 months in solitary confinement.
In the last decade, Fine has alleged in various lawsuits that the county's payments made it nearly impossible to get a fair shake in cases involving county government.
In one of those cases, Fine represented residents suing over development in Marina del Rey.
While the case was still pending, a California State Bar Court judge recommended that Fine be disbarred, accusing him of filing meritless complaints against judges.
The state Supreme Court subsequently disbarred him.
On March 4, 2009, Superior Court Judge David Yaffe ordered Fine jailed indefinitely for allegedly practicing law while being inactive and refusing to answer questions about his personal assets relating to an order to pay more than $50,000 in attorneys' fees in connection with the Marina del Rey case.
Superior Court spokesman Allan Parachini said Yaffe has not released Fine "because he has not answered those questions."
In his appeal to his confinement, Fine cites the precedent of a Los Angeles newspaper reporter who was held in jail in 1972 for contempt for refusing to divulge sources relating to the Charles Manson court case.
After six weeks of confinement, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered his release while his case was being considered by the 9th Circuit. Lower courts later determined that lengthy confinements for contempt simply serve to punish the person – rather than force them to talk – and that violates legal limits on punitive sentences for contempt.