The lessons of Mr. Riches

The Madison County Record Mar. 29, 2008, 9:25am

Madison County has nothing on Jonathan Lee Riches.

Riches, the South Carolina federal prison inmate-turned-serial-lawsuit filer-turned-internet-cult-hero (He has his own Wikipedia entry), sues with an imagination that's, well, unimaginable.

There's his lawsuit against Martha Stewart, charging she violated his civil rights in a real estate deal. Riches claims he tried to buy her Connecticut estate in early 2007 for $3.5 million in pennies before learning it was "full of deception." He also blames Stewart for allegedly being attacked by turkeys, contracting poison ivy, and falling into a groundhog hole while touring her property. Riches pledges to donate any damages he collects to Rachael Ray, the celebrity chef.

Then there's the restraining order he sought against pop star Britney Spears, who Riches says forced him at gunpoint to commit a range of crimes.

And the suit he filed against NASCAR star Jeff Gordon, whom he says tied him to his bumper during a race at Talladega Speedway and dropped tic tacs on the track to wreck rival drivers. And his complaint against MLB star Barry Bonds, who Riches says cracked the Liberty Bell with Hank Aaron's bat.

Or the $63 million dollar lawsuit he filed against former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick last July. Riches accused the NFL star of stealing his pit bulls to sell on eBay so he could buy "missiles from Iran" and conspire with Al Qaeda.

"Michael Vick has to stop physically hurting my feelings and dashing my hopes," Riches wrote in his complaint, one of some 1,500 he's filed while serving time for identity theft.

To be sure, these aren't cherry-picked instances of hilarity-by-way-of frivolity.

There are plenty more--claims against the NFL, ("I played football and got a bruise on my thigh and on my chin.); Apple Computer, ("Apple Computers sexually assaulted me in my dreams not in real life. I can't sue a dream."); the Ohio State Buckeyes, ("I'm offended Ohio State plays a weak schedule on purpose to get a high rating."), and unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, ("Defendant has always had problems with me since I backed out of buying his Montana cabin in 1993."). Each claim was pulled from the headlines and twisted into something of a grievance against the 31-year-old Riches.

The problem is that our courts aren't a place for comedy. Our judicial system has limited resources to adjudicate the real disputes and claims of the aggrieved in search of justice. Judges and clerks have serious work to do every day. They don't have time to process Riches relentless, handwritten stream of gripes and conspiracies, hilarious though some of them might be.

It begs the question: Why is Jonathan Lee Riches allowed to do this? How can this convicted criminal hijack a critical, taxpayer-funded resource for his own delusions?

Through the almost-mythical right to sue, that's how.

The federal courts should have shut Riches down. But they let him file more than one thousand complaints because they mistakenly believed rejecting his claims would somehow violate his constitutional rights.

It wouldn't.

Our Founding Fathers never envisioned a no exception, absolutely guaranteed constitutional right to sue. Surely they never could have imagined a miscreant such as Mr. Riches. But his reckless abuse of our system might serve as Exhibit A in justifying some individual restraints.

Especially in a place like Madison County we shouldn't forget what filing a civil lawsuit seeks. It enables a plaintiff--like a Riches, or an Ashley Peach, or a Mark Eavenson, or an Amanda Verett or any of the other toxic tort filers who have zoomed their way through the Third Circuit in the past decade--to grab awesome state power on their behalf against the interests of somebody else.

Sometimes the arming up is justified. But too often these days, it's just a threatening tactic to compel one's wishes upon another.

It's the best we can do to trust our elected and appointed leaders to reserve our judicial system for plaintiffs in search of genuine justice. Not every perceived slight has a remedy in our courts.

Today, Jonathan Lee Riches stands a caricature. Let's hope his frivolous antics and others' never become more.

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