Federal Judge: Settle GGW Case or Go To Jail

Joe Francis, multimillionaire mogul of the racy “Girls Gone Wild” video series, was the recipient of an eyebrow-raising ultimatum from U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak (Northern District of Florida) according to an Associated Press article posted on CNN’s website today.

Francis is being sued by seven women who claim they were underage when filmed by his company. Francis counters that the women signed releases and lied about their age, a claim doubtless contested by the women on various grounds.

The case took its odd turn when a settlement negotiation broke down, and the women’s attorneys complained to Smoak at a hearing that Francis, per CNN’s AP article, “became enraged during the settlement talks, shouting obscenities at the lawyers and threatening to ‘bury them.'”

According to an AP article by Melissa Nelson appearing on April 1 on OCALA.com: 

Larry Selander, an attorney for one of the women, testified Friday that Francis became enraged during the settlement negotiations.

“What I remember most clearly is [Francis’] eyes and face,” he testified, according to the Panama City News Herald. “I looked into his eyes, and I thought he was gonna slug me.

Which, considering the dateline, leaves me wondering if this was all an elaborate April Fools joke. Why is attorney Selander discussing the settlement negotiation with Judge Smoak? Shouldn’t Selander’s recourse be to report the “assault” to the authorities and/or file a civil case for damages for assault if he actually felt threatened?

Per the same article, Francis’s counsel objected (rightly it seems) to the content of the settlement negotiation meeting being discussed, relying I assume on the ordinary rule of evidence that statements made during settlement negotiations are confidential and cannot be used as evidence.

The upshot of this was Smoak ordering Francis to settle the case or go to jail. Since when can a judge do that!? Using the threat of jail to intimidate a party to a private settlement negotiation? What country is Florida in? In the United States, the function of a civil court is that of an objective and neutral referee when the parties cannot privately resolve a dispute. Is Smoak’s action not only astonishingly improper – but also quite possibly violative of Francis’s civil rights? Or is this story just so badly reported by the AP that it is impossible to understand the legal proprieties?

Francis was quoted in an April 6 AP story posted on the East Valley Tribune’s website as saying that Smoak is “a judge gone wild” who has called Francis “the devil” and “an evildoer” – which, if true, seem to be grounds for Smoak to be removed from the case as openly biased against Francis.

Perhaps Smoak (again, if these allegations are true) is cut from the same moral mold as former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore (removed from his office by the Alabama’s judicial ethics panel for failing to comply with a federal judge’s order to remove a Ten Commandments monument). Last I checked, advocacy for a “moral” position – be it for the Ten Commandments or against the “exploitation” represented by the “Girls Gone Wild” franchise – is not a desired quality in a judge’s public function. Attorneys are advocates, they apply the pressure. A judge is – must be – a neutral arbitrator.

Francis has now been taken into custody per the contempt citation issued by Smoak after the negotiations stalled. Francis’s attorneys appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, but the Circuit Court did not act to keep him out of jail prior to the appeal being heard, the AP reports. From his latest statements, it appears that Francis will attempt to settle the case at any cost in order to stay out of jail, while insisting that he is under duress and any settlement will be overturned on appeal.

If this story has been reported with any degree of accuracy, Francis’s plight seems unjust, and his hope of reversal on appeal seems bright.

If you know what’s really going on here, think you do, or want to share your opinion – please comment.