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California counties aren’t likely to be held liable for violent acts at their courthouses or other properties anytime soon. On Wednesday, the California Supreme Court seemed extremely reluctant during oral arguments in San Francisco to take that step in a case in which a man murdered his ex-wife in the downtown Los Angeles County Courthouse in 1995. “This crime was a consequence of two people who knew each other and one was determined to kill the other,” Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar told Edward Medvene, who represents the deceased woman’s three children in a wrongful death suit against Los Angeles County. How, Werdegar asked, can there be a causal connection based on the county’s alleged dereliction of duty in not finding Dr. Harry Zelig’s hidden revolver and failing to prevent Eileen Zelig’s murder? Medvene, a partner at L.A.’s Lightfoot, Vandevelde, Sadowsky, Medvene & Levine, responded by saying the county could have provided security devices such as metal detectors, reduced the entrances in the courthouse from 17 to three, or even placed warning signs pointing out that no one was searched for guns. The only signs in the courthouse said guns weren’t permitted inside, he said, lulling visitors into a false sense of security. “I see a problem with your case [even with the suggested changes in security],” Werdegar said. “You do need to show some causal connection to [the county's] alleged dereliction of duty.” Justice Joyce Kennard agreed that causality was a problem for Medvene, while Chief Justice Ronald George noted that signs pointing out there is no search would only encourage people to bring guns “because they think they will get in carte blanche.” As part of his argument in Zelig v. County of Los Angeles, S081791, Medvene contended that Ms. Zelig had a special relationship with the county in that she was required to be in court the day of her death for a child- and spousal-support hearing. That required the county — which had no metal detectors at the time — to provide protection, he said, especially because Ms. Zelig had warned about her ex-husband’s death threats and because he knew exactly where to find her on given days. But, asked George, couldn’t the murderer have just as easily known the dates his ex-wife visited friends, went shopping or bought groceries? “Isn’t that the same thing?” he asked. Justice Ming Chin went even further. “If the shooting occurred as [Ms. Zelig] was parking her car on the street outside the courthouse, would you have a case?” he asked. “We wouldn’t have the same case,” Medvene replied. For his part, Steven Renick, who represents Los Angeles County, argued that the county was only the courthouse landlord and had no control over the trial court’s requirement for the Zeligs to appear. So, Werdegar asked, the surviving children have no recourse? They could sue the court, said Renick, a partner in L.A.’s Manning & Marder, Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, but he didn’t think that would be a viable legal argument either. “Obviously,” George interjected, “the perpetrator [of the crime] would be someone to sue.” George also asked whether the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles would be liable if a shooting occurred on its grounds. Medvene said it was unlikely because DMV offices, unlike courthouses, aren’t “powder kegs” for violent emotions. But, asked Kennard, couldn’t it be foreseeable that a murder could also happen at the DMV? “After all,” she said, “it’s known that tempers flare when one is standing in long, long lines.” Renick, the county’s lawyer, summed things up by saying Dr. Zelig could have just as easily killed his wife outside the courthouse as inside, and opining that he didn’t think the county should be required to make the courthouse any safer than the outside world. “There is some point at which you can’t provide security,” he said. “At some point, the person is exposed.” In a separate matter Wednesday, the high court justices found a Santa Barbara, Calif., lawyer in contempt of court for mishandling a death penalty case. Sanger & Swysen partner Robert Sanger missed a deadline at the end of February to file an opening brief in the case of convicted murderer Richard Dean Turner. Sanger was ordered to have a draft to the California Appellate Project within 30 days and a complete brief filed with the California Supreme Court within 60 days. The court said punishment for contempt would be spelled out in a later court order, and that stronger measures would follow if Sanger fails to meet the new deadlines. Sanger, who chose not to comment afterward, has been habeas counsel on Turner’s case since the early ’90s, but was handed the full case in November when co-counsel Thomas Riordan, who was handling the direct appeal, was also found in contempt. Riordan, an associate in Sacramento’s Hansen, Boyd, Culhane & Watson, was ordered to reimburse the court more than $42,000 for fees after he failed to meet filing deadlines 11 times. On Thursday, Sanger said he hadn’t realized in November that Riordan had left so much work undone, making it impossible to meet the February deadline. “Had I known we were going to have to start over,” he said, “I would have planned for it.” Sanger, who is working on another death case at the same time, speculated that he spends 25 percent of his time on Turner’s case. “Why can’t you devote more than that,” George asked, “when you’re under a contempt order?” Justice Marvin Baxter said he would like to see the California Appellate Project, which reviews all death penalty appeals before turning them over to the court, set a schedule for Sanger. “Without that,” he said, “I really don’t have confidence that this will get done.”

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