Fed judge to state judge: Butt out of Scientology case

The Tampa Tribune/September 28, 2010

Tampa - In a rare clash between courts, a federal judge today said he will order a state judge not to interfere with a lawyer's handling of a federal case involving the Church of Scientology.

A visibly irritated U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday granted a motion by lawyer Kennan Dandar, who is representing the estate of Kyle Thomas Brennan in a wrongful death suit against the church.

Merryday told Scientology attorneys they "have forced my hand on this issue."

The order is the latest chapter in a years-long animus between the church and Dandar, one of its most persistent adversaries.

It's "very, very rare" for a federal judge to tell a state court judge what to do, said Michael Allen, a professor of constitutional law at Stetson University College of Law, noting a federal law on the books since 1793 makes most such orders illegal.

There are "extraordinarily narrow" exceptions, Allen said, including one allowing federal judges to issue injunctions against state judges to protect their own jurisdiction. This case arguably falls into that category, although Allen predicts "massive appeals."

The federal lawsuit alleges Scientologists, including Brennan's father, took Brennan's antidepressant prescription from him and gave him access to a loaded gun.

The church says Brennan's suicide was unprovoked. A Clearwater police investigation concluded no one else was responsible for his suicide.

Dandar also represented the relatives of Scientologist Lisa McPherson in their wrongful death lawsuit against the church. McPherson died in 1995 after 17 days of care by Scientology staffers in Clearwater.

That lawsuit was settled in 2004 but only after years of courtroom conflict. Scientology lawyers say the deal included a secret agreement by Dandar not to sue the church again.

In a series of sealed pleadings and hearings, Scientology lawyers asked Pinellas County Senior Circuit Judge Robert Beach to enforce the agreement. Beach ordered Dandar to withdraw from the Brennan case.

Dandar filed an "involuntary" motion asking Merryday to allow him to withdraw but contended Beach didn't have the authority to order him to withdraw. He attached a declaration from Brennan's mother stating she couldn't find another lawyer to represent her.

Merryday denied Dandar's motion.

Dandar told Merryday that Beach was poised to impose sanctions against him Friday, including a daily fine of $1,000 and a judgment of more than $130,000 to be paid immediately to the church.

Dandar said Beach also was considering suspending his law license.

He said the sanctions would force him into bankruptcy.

"I'm stuck in the middle of two courts," Dandar told Merryday. "Basically I am - and my family - in fear of what's going to happen on Friday."

Scientology attorney D. Wallace Pope wanted to present testimony and documents showing the background of the McPherson settlement and how the provision relating to Dandar's involvement in future cases was reached.

"This whole question," Pope said, "was heavily negotiated."

But Merryday said the settlement was irrelevant. He said his only concern was whether Dandar was being punished for complying with Merryday's order denying his motion to withdraw from the case.

He said he would prohibit the church and Beach from levying any penalty against Dandar for his representation of a client in federal court.

"My client will be thrilled," Dandar said afterward. "She's been on pins and needles for awhile."

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