Judge reins in defense lawyer at defamation trial

Posted: January 13, 2010

City Councilman Jack Kelly is suing for defamation a man who circulated fliers before a 2007 election, accusing him of "voting with the homosexual lobby" to "promote sodomy to our youth."

But the first day of the trial was overwhelmed at the start and finish by what Common Pleas Judge Albert Snite Jr. had to say about defense attorney C. Scott Shields, who represents Paul Corbett in the case. At one point, it looked like Shields might be hauled off in handcuffs.

Snite interrupted Shields' opening argument when the attorney started quoting from the state constitution's free-speech provision. The judge told Shields he would tell the jurors about the relevant law.

Shields twice more tried to tell the jurors about the constitution and was cut off each time by Snite, who then asked for the jury to leave the courtroom.

"May I speak," Shields asked.

"No," Snite thundered, standing behind his chair and stomping his foot. "The matter is closed. I don't care what you want to do. Be quiet!"

Snite would not continue until a sheriff's deputy arrived in case he found Shields in contempt of court and ordered him removed.

The judge denied a request from Shields for a mistrial and to recuse himself from the case.

"I'm doing my job to try to make sure some lawyer does not misstate the law to the jury," Snite told Shields. "For that, I'm not going to apologize."

Kelly's case against Corbett grew out of a 2007 City Council vote to force the local Boy Scouts chapter to pay $200,000 per year or move its headquarters off city-owned property it had rented for $1 per year since 1928.

Council, acting on an opinion from then-City Solicitor Romulo Diaz, decided the Boy Scouts were violating the city's anti-discrimination ordinance.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the Boy Scouts of America can ban homosexuals.

Corbett testified yesterday that he tried to have a meeting with Kelly and, after being rebuffed, sent a letter to try to change Kelly's mind. He also admitted that he also threatened to distribute fliers attacking Kelly just before the 2007 general election.

Corbett printed 5,000 of the fliers and stuck them on cars parked at 20 churches in Northeast Philadelphia, starting with Kelly's Roman Catholic parish.

The flier read: "Councilman Jack Kelly voted with the homosexual lobby to remove the Boy Scouts from their city rent-free headquarters. The Scouts can remain only if they agree with the homosexual agenda which would promote sodomy to our youth."

The flier also accused Kelly of "contributing to the delinquency of minors."

It was printed with the name "Citizens Opposed to Politicians who Pander to Perverts."

Corbett continued putting the fliers on cars at Kelly's parish after the pastor asked him to stop.

"I tried to embarrass him," Corbett told the jury with obvious pride. "I wanted to have as big an impact as I could. And I did. He almost lost the election."

Kelly won re-election by 123 votes after a recount. He claims Corbett cost him more than $27,000, including legal and public relations fees in the recount.

Shields again felt Snite's wrath when Diaz testified at the end of the day about his role as city solicitor in the Boy Scouts issue.

Shields started to ask Diaz, who is gay, about his "orientation," when Kelly's attorney, David Heim, objected. Snite again told the jury to leave the courtroom.

Shields told the judge he was trying to probe any "biases or prejudices" held by Diaz.

Snite was not having it.

"It makes no sense to me to say this man gave a legal opinion because he's gay," Snite told Shields. "It astounds me. I won't allow it. It's outrageous."

Diaz told the Inquirer in 2006 that his sexual orientation was not a factor in his decisions during the Boy Scouts issue.

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