A lawsuit filed earlier this month has raised the ire of several leading lawyers and legal bloggers. Noted First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza — a panelist at our Attorney@Blog conference, by the way — describes the case as “truly disgusting.” Ken White of Popehat, another prominent commentator on the legal profession, calls the suit “despicable” and “thoroughly contemptible,” writing that he “cannot remember a lawsuit that so immediately repulsed and enraged.”
Let’s find out what all the buzz is about. Which law firm filed this controversial complaint, what is the case about, and how bad is it?
Every law firm gets confronted (on a pretty regular basis) with the question: “should I put my name on this?“ That soul searching comes into play when you wonder, “is this honorable?” You know when it is, and when it isn’t.
I’m not talking about representing a client that you know is guilty — they deserve a defense. I’m not talking about representing a really evil client — because there might be an important legal issue in play.
I’m talking about when you do something truly disgusting.
Now, Biglaw firms sometimes represent some pretty unsavory characters — corporations that profit from dangerous or defective products, companies that pollute the air and water, greedy white-collar criminals. Is this latest lawsuit any worse? Per Randazza:
Mayer Brown brings you this masterpiece — a lawsuit where they are trying remove a memorial for World War II “comfort women” from a public park. You see, it “offends” some of their clients. The cause itself is a bit slimy, but how they’re going about it qualifies them as “the least honorable law firm in the world.”
For those of you who do not know what the “comfort women” were — they were about 200,000 women (some say as many as 400,000) who were forced into working in whorehouses for Japanese soldiers during World War II.
After describing the atrocities inflicted upon the comfort women, who were basically turned into sex slaves, Randazza scrutinizes the plaintiffs behind this suit:
Two of the plaintiffs are Japanese-Americans who live in Glendale. The third plaintiff is an “organization” called “GAHT-US.”
“Plaintiff GAHT-US Corporation (GAHT-US) is a non-profit public benefit corporation organized under the laws of the State of California. The purpose of GAHT-US is to provide accurate and fact-based educational resources to the public in the U.S., including within California and Glendale, concerning the history of World War II and related events, with an emphasis on Japan’s role.” (Complaint at Para. 7)
Well, if we look for GAHT-US (The “Global Alliance for Historical Truth”), what do we find? We find that it is a corporation that someone created on February 6, 2014. After 14 days of legal existence, this lawsuit was GAHT-US’s first act — well after slapping up a web page. This “Global Alliance’s” address is 1223 Wilshire Boulevard #613. That’s a UPS Store.
What is the plaintiffs’ issue with the memorial? From the complaint:
As a Glendale resident of Japanese heritage, [plaintiff Michiko Shiota Gingery] believes the Public Monument presents an unfairly one-sided portrayal of the historical and political debate surrounding comfort women….
Over at Popehat, Ken White provides more of the necessary background:
During the Second World War, the Empire of Japan sexually enslaved women — at least tens of thousands, and perhaps hundreds of thousands — to be raped by its troops. They were forcibly seized from the countries Japan occupied, primarily Korea. Though Japan officially apologized in 1993, in recent years right-wing forces in Japan have been seeking to retract those apologies, asserting that the enslaved women were actually voluntary prostitutes, or that the Empire itself wasn’t involved in any coercion. This attempted walkback can best be understood in the broader context of Japanese nationalist politics, in which right-wing politicians play to their base by doing things like visiting shrines honoring war criminals.
Now Japanese-American plaintiffs, served by American megafirm Mayer Brown, are pursuing the agenda of reactionary Japanese politicians through despicable litigation.
So one could argue that this lawsuit constitutes an attempt to deny historical horrors that most people (at least here in the United States) would agree actually occurred — or if not to deny those horrors, at least to shift the blame for them.
What are the plaintiffs’ legal grounds for opposing the memorial? Per Popehat:
Plaintiffs argue in part that the City of Glendale did not follow its own rules in approving the exact language on the memorial. But their primary argument — the most shocking one — is that the City of Glendale cannot erect such a memorial because it violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution and interferes with the federal government’s sole right to conduct U.S. foreign policy.
In a nutshell, the plaintiffs argue that because “the historical and political debate surrounding comfort women” is so charged — implicating relations between Japan and its neighbors in Asia, and between Japan and the United States — Glendale cannot put up this memorial without violating the federal government’s “power to exclusively conduct the foreign affairs of the United States.” This argument seems like a bit of a stretch to me, for the reasons outlined by Randazza at The Legal Satyricon and White at Popehat.
(You should definitely read both of their posts, which are vigorously argued and stylishly written. Whether you agree or disagree with Randazza and White, you can at least enjoy their prose.)
So Gingery v. City of Glendale doesn’t strike me as a particularly meritorious lawsuit. But does that make it “disgusting” and “despicable”? Maybe I’m taking too amoral a view — perhaps years of observing and writing about the legal profession have made me jaded — but I’m not sure. It seems not terribly different from any other case in which a Biglaw firm represents some powerful interest opposed to human rights (or arguably opposed to human rights, if you want to be a comfort-women-denier about it).
My reaction to this case is less angry and more puzzled, or at least curious. I’m curious about the plaintiffs, especially the mysterious, newly formed GAHT-US entity. I’m curious about why the plaintiffs care so deeply about disputing the historical record on the comfort women — do they have ties to right-wing Japanese politics? I’m curious about how much the plaintiffs are paying Mayer Brown to handle this matter and who is funding the litigation. And I’m curious about why Mayer Brown decided to take this controversial case — do the plaintiffs have ties to existing corporate clients of the firm? This is not the kind of case that a firm like Mayer would typically handle.
(By the way, we did reach out to Mayer Brown to see if the firm had any comment on this case. They did not get back to us.)
That’s just me. Readers, what do you make of this matter? Sound off in the comments, and take our reader poll.
UPDATE (3/4/2014, 11:45 p.m.): A quick clarification in response to Jack Marshall’s post over at Ethics Alarms. My argument is not “everybody does stuff like this, so therefore it’s okay.” Rather, my argument — reflecting my perspective as a Biglaw admirer, which perhaps I should have made explicit — would be better phrased as follows: “Biglaw firms frequently represent powerful interests allegedly opposed to human rights; there’s nothing wrong with such representations, which involve unpopular parties receiving zealous advocacy on their behalf; and Mayer Brown’s involvement in the Gingery case isn’t materially different from these representations.”
UPDATE (5/2/2014): Mayer Brown has withdrawn from the case.
Mayer Brown, shame on you. [The Legal Satyricon]
Controlling Public Art By Lawsuit: Japanese-American Citizens Sue To Remove “Comfort Women” Memorial [Popehat]