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Traficant off to inauspicious start in U.S. District Court



Published: Sat, May 12, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



If U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. is going to act as his own lawyer while defending himself in U.S. District Court, he should be expected to behave with the same sense of decorum as any other lawyer appearing before the federal bench.

On Friday, Traficant did not rise to that level, and we are somewhat dismayed that U.S. District Judge Lesley B. Wells did not hold him to that standard.

Close your eyes: Try to imagine these scenarios unfolding between a lawyer and a federal judge:

UThe judge asks the lawyer if his client understands the seriousness of the situation and the lawyer responds: "He fully understands, your honor. He's getting screwed here."

UThe lawyer describes another federal court in which he appeared as "a kangaroo court."

UThe lawyer berates the judge for asking the same question too many times and describes the question as asinine.

UThe lawyer interrupts the judge at will.

UThe lawyer accuses the judge of trying to deny his client a fair trial by cramping his style.

If you're a lawyer, you know what would happen to you if you did any one of those things, much less all five within a matter of minutes. If you're not a lawyer, ask a lawyer what would happen if he or she put in such a performance in a federal courtroom.

Yet, James A. Traficant did all that and more Friday when appearing before Wells during a hearing on whether Traficant fully understood the dangers of acting as his own lawyer in a complicated case. Traficant faces 10 charges that could bring him 63 years in jail and $2.2 million in fines and penalties if he were convicted on all counts.

Track record: This is the third time Traficant will be going up against government lawyers. He won the first time, in a Cleveland courtroom where a rookie judge allowed him to carry on, curse and testify on his own behalf without having to face cross examination.

The second time was during a civil trial in U.S. tax court, which resulted in a finding for recovery of unpaid taxes on bribery money that Traficant admitted taking from mobsters, but which he claimed to have returned. Traficant's comment about a "kangaroo court" was an apparent reference to that experience.

When Traficant wins, he thinks it's a fair trial. When he loses, it was rigged. But both sides are entitled to a fair trial -- prosecution and defense. And it is the judge's job to see that both sides play by the rules and show appropriate respect to the court.

At the end of the hearing, Judge Wells issued a warning to Traficant that she would appoint standby counsel or order that Traficant be represented by a lawyer if she thought such action was necessary. That, we believe, would be a mistake, giving Traficant an appeal for the history books if he were convicted. If he didn't win in the appeals court, he'd surely win in the court of public opinion as he talked about how he was acquitted when he defended himself, but convicted when the court ordered him to use a lawyer.

She also said she wouldn't tolerate abusive behavior, but went no further than to say that she'd know such behavior when she saw it.

To our eyes, she had ample opportunity to see it more than once Friday, but ignored it.

If she's operating under the theory that if you give Traficant enough rope he'll hang himself, she'd be wise to rethink her strategy. Give Traficant enough rope, and he'll tie the judge, the prosecutors and the jury up in one big bow and walk out of the courtroom whistling.

It's happened before.




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