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BINGHAM ATTORNEYS FIRE UP AGAINST ASHCROFT California’s controversial experiment with medical marijuana flared up April 23 when the city and county of Santa Cruz, along with a local pot farm, sued U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Taking the lead in the confrontation with the Justice Department is a team of Bingham McCutchen attorneys working pro bono. Neha Nissen, a sixth-year associate at Bingham’s San Francisco office, is heading up the effort along with partner Frank Kennamer. “I’m proud to be working on this kind of case,” Nissen said. “It’s not only about these challenging constitutional issues, but also about being able to help individuals who are so obviously in need.” According to Nissen, the medical marijuana users at issue suffer from HIV/AIDS and cancer, and a number of them are terminally ill patients. All had been receiving medical marijuana on a physician’s orders. The Bingham attorneys got involved in the case after federal agents raided the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in September, uprooting 165 pot plants and arresting the owners. Judy Appel, a former Bingham fellow working with WAMM, asked the firm for support. Since then, a team of four Bingham attorneys has contributed hundreds of hours, and has drafted the pleadings filed in April. The complaint, filed in San Jose U.S. District Court, seeks to enjoin the government from further raids on WAMM. “I think that this is one situation where the federal government has overstepped its boundaries,” says Nissen. – Alexei Oreskovic JOB CHANGE SACRAMENTO — At his recent swearing-in ceremony, McGregor Scott, the new U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, was greeted with some very practical advice. “Make it your firm policy never to permit anyone to discuss parking in your presence,” U.S. District Judge David Levi told him. “As one U.S. attorney once said to me, ‘There’s religion, there’s politics, and then there’s parking.’” Levi should know. He apparently heard his share of complaints about parking and other staff matters when he served as U.S. attorney for the district — geographically California’s largest — from 1986 to 1990. He was one of several speakers who crowded into an Eastern District courtroom to watch the new federal prosecutor take his oath of office. Things have changed since Levi was in charge. The army of federal lawyers spread between the prosecutors’ main offices in Sacramento and Fresno has grown from 50 to 70, and the main fear of the general population is no longer drugs (although that’s still a problem) or political corruption (ditto) — it’s terrorism. The 40-year-old Scott, who was most recently district attorney in Shasta County and also served as a deputy DA in Contra Costa, is the ninth U.S. attorney for the district who’s been picked by the country’s president. As retired Third District Court of Appeal Justice Robert Puglia pointed out, Scott’s appointment by President Bush was a long time coming. “The Eastern District had come to be regarded as the ugly stepchild during this administration,” said Puglia, who is part of Bush’s California selection committee. The top slot was vacant for more than two years, as interim U.S. Attorney John Vincent filled in. Scott waited until the end of the hourlong ceremony to speak. He thanked a lot of people, his voice sometimes cracking with emotion, and then told the approximately 250 people in the 16th-floor courtroom that he felt ready for the challenges of leading the office — including, presumably, those staff parking complaints. “All that I have done in my life has prepared me for this moment,” Scott said. – Jeff Chorney OFF EASY Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Ana Maria Lopez got off on a technicality. Hit with a $1,500 sanction last year by an angry judge for improperly dismissing ethnic minorities from a prospective jury panel, Lopez and her office appealed. Last week, L.A.’s Second District Court of Appeal let Lopez off the hook, even though they felt the sanction was well deserved, especially considering that her actions caused a mistrial. “Based on a reading of the transcript of the proceedings,” Justice Norman Epstein wrote, “we cannot say the trial judge called it wrong.” Lopez, he wrote, improperly used “group bias” to exclude nine potential jurors — including two Asians, three blacks and one whose ethnicity was difficult to categorize. Justices Charles Vogel and Daniel Curry concurred. But the court held L.A. County Superior Court Judge Arthur Jean Jr. sanctioned Lopez under Code of Civil Procedure � 177.5, which allows monetary hits only for violations of court orders. “In this case,” Epstein wrote, “there is nothing approximating a court order.” Judge Jean was irritated that Lopez, during the third trial of accused murderer Sarina Lenee Muhammad, used peremptory challenges to exclude ethnic jurors based on their professions. Being they were janitors, custodians, customer service representatives and clerks, Lopez told Jean, she felt they would not understand the technical evidence she would present. Jean, in sanctioning Lopez, said he thought what she had done was “not only illegal, but immoral and unethical.” “The technicalities of your case aren’t so technical,” he said, “that these people couldn’t listen to the case, and I don’t buy it.” The appeal court justices, in agreeing with Jean on Lopez’s misconduct, said a judge’s judgment is to be given considerable deference, especially when it’s someone like Jean with 17 years on the bench and 13 years of prosecutorial experience. They even defended Jean from Lopez’s argument that the sanction ruling was “an arbitrary, mean-spirited order, in patent derogation of the law.” “It was in derogation of the law,” Justice Epstein wrote, “because the conduct did not violate a court order, and the ruling was not stated in writing with an explanation of the justifying circumstances. Aside from that, we disagree with the characterization.” On the other hand, he concluded, what Lopez did “was illegal and unprofessional.” — Mike McKee

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