pro se crusade against crosses could prove costly

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    Paul Weinbaum lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico.  Although “las cruces” means “the crosses” in Spanish, Weinbaum believed the City and its public school district were violating the U. S. Constitution by depicting Christian crosses on their logos, buildings and vehicles.  He therefore filed pro se lawsuits against the City and the Schools of Las Cruces.  Last November, Weinbaum lost his case against the City (see Religion Clause weblog, Nov. 10, 2006) and, in December, 2006, he lost his case against the school district (see Religion Clause, Dec. 9, 2006).   His appeal of the school case is pending before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

 shipCrusade  The Las Cruces school district is not waiting for the appeal to be finalized to make its next move.  It has filed a motion asking for about $16,000 in legal fees from Weinbaum, claiming that the suit against the schools was clearly “frivolous,” once the City won its case.  Las Cruces Sun-News, “Crosses case may prove to be pricey,” Jan. 27, 2007 (click for LCPS motion to recover attorney’s fees and for Plaintiff’s response)  The District says it actually spent $53,000 on legal fees defending Weinbaum’s charges, but is only asking for fees accrued after the City’s case was decided.

Without more information and research, I can’t have a clear opinion on whether it was frivolous for the plaintiff to continue his lawsuit once he lost the case against the City.  (Remember, in legal terms, “frivolous” means without a colorable claim in fact or law.) It’s possible that different criteria might apply in the context of a school district (with young, impressionable minds) than for the City as a whole.  The points mentioned in the Sun-News article as Mr. Weinbaum’s defense against the frivolousness claim do not, however, appear to hold much water:

  • He told the Sun-News, “We never asked for any money, which should be a sign,” the lawsuit is legitimate.  
  • He told the Court: “The pro se plaintiff (Weinbaum) never wanted his concerns to reach the legal system as he believed, perhaps naively so, that the defendants would be open to ideas about equality this being the 21st century, they being elected individuals who swore an oath to obey constitutional laws.”  and,
  • According to the news article, he continued that “he was open to settling the case before trial, but attorneys for the district wanted an ‘all or nothing. resolution which forced him ‘against the “wall of no compromise”.'”

We’ll let you know whether Mr. Weinbaum has to pay the School District’s legal fees.  If he does, it will be an important reminder that bringing a pro se lawsuit can be quite expensive, for defendant and plaintiff.  Common sense, and a good understanding of the law and of your adversary, are needed when deciding to bring or to continue any lawsuit.  

4 Comments

  1. 127001

    January 28, 2007 @ 10:14 am

    1

    As I read this I have so many queestions. Was this a “one man crusade” or a small group that found the use offensive because “they” defined the crosses as depicting a religious symbol rather than the name of the community?

    There are so many other ways to deal with this type of thing, without the legal system getting involved … particularly the courts! Did lawsuits completely replace political and social activism and protesting? The latter are a lot more fun!

    This is one of those rare instances I side with the taxpayers of Las Cruces. If the name means “the crosses” and that was the symbol used, then IMHO if you don’t like them and pursue to expend taxpayer dollars in legal fees, you should be responsible for them if you lose.

    Sounds like a level playing field (in a sense) to me, and the judgment should consider the taxpayers who don’t believe as those who pursued the case within the more expensive (albeit probably more comfortable) forum.

    Just my two cents. Non-taxable.

  2. david giacalone

    January 28, 2007 @ 5:11 pm

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    Hi, 127001. From the newspaper account, it seems that Mr. Weinbaum had one other person join each lawsuit (one of whom dropped out), and there is no indication of a broader movement. The older Sun-Times articles were no longer available, so I did not see the early coverage nor read the judge’s opinions. One could probably argue that having crosses depicted everwhere actually makes them commonplace and innocuous.

    I wonder what the symbol is for Corpus Christi, TX? So much of the southwest and west coast has locations named for saints and christian concepts that there would be an awful lot of potentially frivolous lawsuits out there if “church” symbols were contested everywhere.

  3. 127001

    January 29, 2007 @ 8:46 am

    3

    ROFLMAO!!!

    Unfortunately, you forgot one thing that I wouldn’t touch for anything, even trying to promote Civil Gideon…

    You don’t challenge the Southern Baptists about the cross.

    Made my day just picturing it.

    BTW, just now posting commentary on this at my site. I do watch you carefully, and again apologize for the initial brashness of my first post.

    I came looking for a trackback link.

  4. Tim Kevan

    January 30, 2007 @ 5:29 am

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    Really like the site. I am a barrister over in England and have added a link on The Barrister Blog at http://timkevan.blogspot.com. There is quite a legal blogging community over here as you will see from my blog roll. Reciprocal link always appreciated, though no worries if not.

    Keep in touch. Best wishes, Tim Kevan

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