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Lawsuits tend to always be about the money ... for lawyers

There was no doubt that “Bill” Gillespie (Carroll O’Connor) was in charge as the police chief of Sparta in the television series, “In the Heat of the Night.”

There was also no uncertainty during the seven-year run of the popular series that ended in 1995 about who was the department’s straight-talking No. 2 man — a redneck named Bubba — specifically, Capt. Bubba Skinner. Bubba’s baritone southern drawl; firm set, square jaw; a slightly cocked stare that would stop a charging bull, and biceps straining his short-sleeved blue uniform shirt to the tearing point, Bubba didn’t take nothin’ off nobody and told it like it was.

The series character was played by actor Alan Autry, a Louisiana native who grew up poor in rural Fresno County; escaped poverty via football and returned to the San Joaquin Valley to become a two-term mayor of Fresno, Calif.

There is never any question about where Mayor Bubba stands on issues. He was actually hauled before a judge not long ago — the same one that has been making all the fish-favoring water supply rulings that are threatening to disrupt the economy of California. U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger is that judge. Those involved in the fish disputes say Wanger is a fair judge. He is only following the law. It is the law that is flawed. Not sure I totally buy that, but that is fodder for another commentary.

Several months ago, the city and the state highway department cleaned out a homeless settlement under a freeway overpass near downtown Fresno. The ACLU and a group called the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights sued, claiming the city had no right to destroy the personal property of the homeless.

Like many of these suits, it was all about money — not for the homeless, but for the lawyers. The city settled for $2.2 million. Autry did not like it, but was told by city attorneys it was the least expensive way to make the lawsuit go away.

Autry/Bubba criticized the deal in public, saying the city had a gun to its head to settle. He did not stop there; he was quoted in the Fresno Bee as saying, “The white-collar exploitation of the homeless by the court and the lawyers is unconscionable. I am calling upon the ACLU and Judge Wanger to require half of the exorbitant lawyer fees of $750,000 to be donated to the homeless programs.”

Whoa, Bubba ... you just crossed the forbidden lawyer line. Wanger hauled Autry into court to lecture him on free speech. Wanger said Autry’s criticism of the court was not covered under free speech and it was not right to suggest the court, as an institution, was engaged in criminal conduct by implying that this bunch of lawyers were exploiting the homeless and that the court set legal fees too high.

Autry touched a nerve generally avoided in the do-gooder lawsuits over environmental issues and so-called civil rights. If the plaintiffs win, the lawyers get a windfall of legal fees. I have not seen any fees over the Delta smelt lawsuit or the salmon cases before Wanger and other judges. However, I suspect legal fees for the homeless case settlement were minnow-sized compared to what the environmental wackos are getting for the fish suits. The final paragraph of the article detailing Autry’s visit with the judge no doubt rankled Bubba even more. The Bee reported, “Michael Risher, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California who worked on the case ... said the $750,000 in legal fees would help pay for other cases ‘to protect the Constitution.’”

That is a lot of protection. Seems more like extortion.

Keep that $750,000 in mind next time you read about lawyers from so-called nonprofit environmental groups who are out to save fish and man from each other.

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