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Courtroom Cowboy

By Ralph Cipriano

At the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I worked as a reporter, Jim Beasley was so feared and despised that my editors called him the antichrist. Beasley was the king of libel suits who had made a career out of suing the Inquirer; he was notorious for assaulting journalists on the witness stand and for scoring multimillion-dollar libel verdicts. So when I secretly went to see him in the summer of 1998, I felt like a traitor. But I was in trouble and needed his advice.

The Beasley Building,” at the corner of 12th and Walnut Streets, was a Gothic stone castle, the former headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. Behind heavy wrought iron gates, the place still had the feel of a 19th century church, with its leaded stained glass windows, marble fireplaces, and glowing Victorian candle chandeliers.

The receptionist at the front desk told me to go right up, Mr. Beasley was expecting me. His executive office was a cavernous second-floor suite featuring 15-foot ceilings that once belonged to the bishop.

At first glance, I thought Beasley, in his early 70s, was the image of a distinguished trial lawyer, with his flowing silver mane, craggy face, and intimidating brown-eyed stare. But then I saw some rough edges: slightly crooked teeth, a gaudy brass belt buckle emblazoned with a famous World War II fighter plane – the P51 Mustang – and, under faded jeans, a pair of cowboy boots.

I was in a jam; my boss, the editor of the Inquirer, had just called me a liar on the front page of the Washington Post’s Style section. My boss was upset because a story I wrote about lavish spending by the Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia – a story the Inquirer had declined to print for political reasons – had just been published by another newspaper. When Howard Kurtz of the Post called my boss to ask why he hadn’t run the story, my boss defended himself by trashing me, saying I wrote things that weren’t true. He also refused to apologize, even though he had been urged to do so at a staff meeting attended by 45 colleagues.

So I was a reporter with a credibility problem, trying to decide whether the only way to restore my reputation was to sue my editor and my own newspaper for libel. And who knew more about suing the “Inky” than the antichrist?

Like many clients before me who sat in Beasley’s office, I was overcome with anxiety. Did I have a case? If I did sue, would it be the end of my career? And if I didn’t sue and got fired, and nobody else would hire me, how would I pay the bills and put the kids through college?

Beasley took charge, calmly asking questions, and listening intently to the answers. “I think you’ve got a good case,” he said finally, in a voice with a hint of a Southern accent, but he warned that libel suits were never easy.

I didn’t know much about the subject, so Beasley leaned back in his upholstered leather chair and rattled off an impressive synopsis of a couple hundred years of American libel law. While Beasley filled me in on the meaning of public figures and actual malice, I glanced around his cherry paneled walls, at all the legal awards and plaques commending outstanding generosity to charities and to Temple University, Beasley’s alma mater.

It was hard not to be impressed with Beasley, but I couldn’t make up my mind whether I had the guts to hire him. “Thanks for your time,” I said as I was leaving, “but I’ve got a lot to think about. Maybe my boss and I can work things out.”

Beasley didn’t think so, but he didn’t want to talk me into anything. “Good luck,” he said, sticking out his hand. “You’ve got a decision to make, buddy, and I can’t make it for you.”

Not many people shared my favorable impression of Jim Beasley. Besides being hated by journalists, he was also unpopular with doctors and lawyers, because of his work in malpractice law. This guy had a talent for making enemies all over town.

A lawyer friend of mine said he wouldn’t hire Beasley if his neck was on the line. “Beasley’s a gambler,” my friend said. “Do you want to put your life in the hands of a gambler?” My friend advised me to go see another top city lawyer who had a reputation for being cool under fire, someone less reckless and unpredictable.

Friends in the newsroom also stopped by my desk to offer unsolicited advice about hiring a lawyer. The unanimous recommendation: “anybody but Beasley.” Go ahead and sue us, they said, just pick another lawyer. So to mollify all the Beasley haters I knew, I went to see this other lawyer.

He was a slick Baby Boomer in a suit and tie who said I might have an interesting case, because my boss had certainly acted rashly. But he said I sounded like a hothead too, and he was worried that I might come off to a jury as some kind of nut. He also wanted to know if I had any skeletons in my closet, and then he referred to some big shots at the Inquirer by their first names, as if I was supposed to be impressed. But I left his office wondering whose side he would be on.

Sorry, guys. Why go to war with a waffler like John Kerry, when I could hire General Patton? Beasley, a member of the Greatest Generation, didn’t see the moral universe in endless shades of gray; to him it was all black and white. “You’re right,” he told me; “they’re wrong. It’s as simple as that. And we’re gonna win the case.” That’s the kind of talk I wanted to hear from my lawyer.

Beasley drafted a complaint charging that I was the victim of a “malicious defamation,” and after many revisions, it was time to sign. It wasn’t easy, I told Beasley as I scrawled my signature, to sue the paper I’d written more than 1,000 stories for. When I looked up, my lawyer was smiling. The case was a winner, he said. He picked up the complaint, rolled it up and waved it in my face. “This one,” he said, “has my byline on it.”

After I filed suit, my newspaper suspended me from work, even though the newsroom labor contract had no provision for suspensions. The first person I called was Beasley. Don’t worry, he said; they don’t know what to do with you.

They figured it out. Two weeks later, two editors showed up at my doorstep to fire me. Once again, I picked up the phone and called Beasley, who was as upbeat as ever. Don’t worry, he said, they just made a big mistake. Beasley promptly filed an amended complaint charging that the Inquirer had fired me in retaliation for exercising my constitutional right to file a lawsuit, which Beasley claimed was further proof of malice.

With plenty of time on my hands, I started showing up at Beasley’s office for early morning strategy sessions. His phone was always ringing. A judge called with a new lawyer joke that made Beasley laugh. U.S. Senator Arlen Specter was on the line, seeking support for his reelection campaign. “All right, Arlen,” Beasley sighed, lowering his head. “I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

An airplane mechanic called to talk about one of Beasley’s beloved P51 Mustangs. Beasley’s hobby was flying vintage warbirds on weekends; performing daredevil maneuvers in formation with other expert pilots like his son, Jim Jr. “It veers to the right,” Beasley complained to his mechanic. “How much is this costing me now?”

When we talked about my case, the main thing Beasley wanted to know was, what had I done to my boss, Robert J. Rosenthal, editor of the Inquirer, to make him angry enough to call me a liar in the Washington Post? Did I make a pass at his wife? I’m not that dumb, I said. “He drove through so many stop signs and caution lights,” Beasley marveled.

One morning, Beasley told me he was going on vacation; a group of lawyers from his office was flying to Tibet, to climb Mount Everest. I looked at Beasley to see if he was kidding. Here he was twice the age of these young guys, yet he too felt he had to climb the mountain. I was worried he might take a tumble and break his neck before he could try my case, but Beasley shrugged it off. “You only live once,” he said.

When you’re a newspaper reporter, it’s hard to break old habits. Even an unemployed hack could see that Jim Beasley was a great story. He was a warrior out on the battlefield every day of his life; a maverick misunderstood by the wimps in the press. On his desk, he kept a small metal sculpture of a Sisyphus-like figure pushing a big boulder up a hill. His motto, hand painted on the walls of his extravagant Sistine Chapel of a law library, was a quote from George Bernard Shaw’s “Maxims for Revolutionists:”

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

So it was Beasley’s mission statement to be a pain in the ass. And he was so good at it. I told Beasley if he hadn’t pissed off so many journalists, they’d have already written several books about him. He laughed, and then we argued about freedom of the press. I told Beasley if guys like me got our facts straight, guys like him would starve to death. “You’re absolutely right,” he said, laughing again.

We also got into debates about religion and God. Beasley knew I was a skeptic who converted while reading the Bible and working the religion beat at the Inquirer. But Beasley didn’t buy organized religion, and he advised me to read a Bertrand Russell essay he admired, “Why I Am Not a Christian.” He also declared with characteristic bluntness that the only reason people believed in religion or God was that they were afraid to die. I told him religion might be nonsense, but God was for real.

Beasley didn’t buy that either. “What did God ever do for you?” he snapped. I looked at him and smiled. “He gave me a great lawyer.” For once, Beasley had no reply. It may have been the only argument I ever won in that office.

Through every stage of the legal war, Beasley was resolute, keeping the case tightly focused on the remarks my boss made to the Washington Post, remarks that Beasley knew we would disprove. Whenever I brought up an issue that was off target, Beasley would put us right back on course by yelling, “What the hell does that have to do with what Bob Rosenthal said to the Washington Post?” When the case dragged on, Beasley reassured me by saying, “Relax, all they can do is postpone the inevitable.”

He was right. After 2 1/2 years of litigation, the bosses at the Inquirer decided to settle the case and avoid an embarrassing trial by printing a public apology and paying a confidential sum. The settlement, however, still received plenty of attention in the press. Beasley, who loved free advertising, posed with me in his law library for a photo to illustrate a cover story in Editor & Publisher.

By then, I was so fond of my lawyer, I didn’t want to say goodbye. When he asked if I was interested in collaborating with him on a book about his favorite cases, I eagerly agreed. Beasley began pulling court files and judges’ rulings. He talked about some of the characters he had met during his 48 years as a trial lawyer, and the many legal precedents he had set.

As he prepared to write his book, Beasley ruminated on a yellow legal pad about a lifetime of courtroom battles: “There are cases that I should have won, that I lost,” he wrote. “There are cases that I should have lost, that I won. That, simply stated, is the practice of law. Conflict makes the law, it is true; the heart of the law is conflict.”

When I leafed through Beasley’s case files, and saw the amazing variety of lost causes that he had embraced over the years, I realized that my lawyer was a bigger story than I had imagined. This guy wasn’t afraid to take on anybody, whether it was wily boxing promoter Don King, fugitive killer Ira Einhorn, or terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Beasley would take a case simply because it was the right thing to do, and he didn’t mind tilting at windmills.

My relationship with Beasley began to change. “I’m not your lawyer anymore,” he said wistfully one night in a restaurant over a few glasses of wine. Now talking to his ghostwriter, Beasley began to loosen up.

He was a mystery to most of the judges and lawyers in town because he never talked about himself or his humble beginnings; even the lawyers who worked for him wondered what drove him to keep working so hard. Beasley gave me some insight when he said that before he went to college on the GI bill, he was a high school dropout driving a Greyhound bus.

His success, Beasley confided, was probably equal to how neurotic he was, and how deep his insecurities ran. Then he changed the subject, preferring to talk about his cases again. Beasley wanted each chapter of the book to tell a stand-alone story about one of his favorite cases, but I told Beasley that the book should also tell his story. When I tried to steer the conversation back to personal matters, however, hoping for further revelations, Beasley cracked, “Who cares about that shit?”

So that’s what we had to call it, because I owe a debt to the man, even if he didn’t hang around long enough to help me write the book. Because, if you were ever in trouble, you dreamed of having an advocate like Jim Beasley. As he told the young lawyers who worked for him, “Never take any shit from anybody, and that includes a judge.”

In an age of tort reform and lawyer jokes, Jim Beasley was a throwback; proud to be a trial lawyer, because he saw it as a way to help people, right wrongs, and improve society. And he knew only one way to practice the law – go all out.

What follows is the biography of a great American trial lawyer. Rest in peace, Jim.

Pick up your copy of Courtroom Cowboy online today.

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