SACRAMENTO-To citizens not initiated members of the legal fraternity, it seemed an honest, simple question: were the corporate hired guns who hijacked Sierra County's prosecutorial authority entitled to the absolute immunity given real prosecutors for performance of their duty? If not, reasoned Sixteen to One mine's CEO Mike Miller, the corporation owed him some compensation for his time defending their unethical, cavalier and ultimately unsuccessful prosecution of him, the mine, and the mine foreman, for murder.
Of course there were corollary questions that slide into argument: does the law apply to lawyers, too? The legal requirement that deputy prosecutors register with the County Clerk had been ignored.
Two trial court judges thought the question had merit and refused to grant the corporate lawyers automatic immunity. After months of wrangling, legal dodges and generating seemingly endless paperwork, the corporation's lawyer found a way to get the question straight to the appeals court.
The California Third District Appeals Court finally answered that question in late May: the law's obligations do not apply to the corporate prosecutors, but its protection does.
Oh, and by the way, added the appellate body, Miller and the mine owe the prosecutors' corporation money for getting that question answered.
This week, that bill was sent: the Sixteen owes the California District Attorneys Association $96,100, and Miller personally owes $15,100.
That the price of simply asking for a redress of grievance.
Miller sought damages for the lawyers' breach of duty, malicious prosecution, violation of criminal law, and violations of both the state and federal Constitutions.
The case stemmed from an accident in the mine that killed miner Mark Fussell. The Sierra County Sheriff's Office found no criminal behavior. The Mine Safety and Health Administration was in the midst of its investigation when the District Attorneys Association decided to prosecute the mine.
That investigation eventually exonerated the mine of any wrongdoing.
CDAA had a contract with the state labor department, part of the executive branch of California's government, to offer prosecutorial expertise to rural counties with insufficient resources to prosecute such cases.
Not coincidentally, then-Governor Gray Davis was desperately trying to curry labor's favor to stave off a recall election. Executive action against perceived unsafe working conditions would do him no harm in that quarter.
CDAA's prosecutors approached Sierra County's bitter lame duck District Attorney who would nominally occupy the office for over a year before her successor took over. For reasons open to speculation, she gladly allowed CDAA to have its way, avowedly unconcerned.
The corporate lawyers convened a grand jury, and by refusing to offer that panel evidence of the mine's innocence, obtained an indictment. That failure eventually resulted in the case being thrown out by a trial court judge, but not before Miller and the Sixteen had spent a considerable sum of money in its defense.
By that time, Davis had been recalled, and the corporation's hired guns slunk silently out of the picture.
Were it not for the expense they caused a Sierra County business and citizen, the would-be prosecutors provided much amusement for observers.
The lawyers were openly afraid of the rural inhabitants of the county. Ignoring Miller's obvious access to dynamite, they required him to turn in all his firearms for the duration of the proceedings.
Their investigator infuriated the Sheriff by falsely claiming to be a peace officer. The lawyers managed to alienate nearly all the courthouse staff with an arrogance unseemly in the generally familial atmosphere.
But, they got away with it, and the appeals court has properly warned us of the new rules: messing with lawyers could bankrupt you.