Messina High Bench Knocks Out Alimony Award, but Returns Dowry; Declares Subpoena “Much Ado About Nothing”
The Supreme Court of Messina rarely hears a domestic relations case, but when it does, anything can happen.
In the matter of Count Claudio of Florence v. Lady Hero of Messina, 2011 DRB 65471, heard at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Mock Trial 2012 at Harman Hall Monday night, the High Bench spanked the lower court in several particulars. In a decision read from the bench by Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supremes, by a 4-2 vote (Justices Douglas Ginsburg and Merrick Garland dissenting) reversed the Messina Superior Court’s award to Lady Hero of 30,000 florins a month alimony, and unanimously reversed the lower court’s decision to allow Claudio to keep his dowry. The High Court also unanimously upheld the decree of absolute divorce, and dismissed Claudio’s efforts to subpoena the financial records of Hero’s trust as moot (since he would not be paying alimony).
The legal kerfuffle took the storybook ending of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and gave us, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story.
The facts, as Shakespeare had laid them out, were these: Claudio, a soldier in Don Pedro’s army, visited the home of Leonato in Messina. There he fell in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero, who, after an incomprehensible courtship involving Don Pedro in disguise, agreed to wed him. However, the villainous Don Juan was bent on destroying their relationship, and to that end framed her for the crime of unlawful smooching with one of his minions. Claudio bought the deception, and denounced her on their wedding day; Hero then feigned death, and Claudio, who was brought to knowledge of the true state of affairs by the intrepid moron Dogberry, fell into a fugue of remorse. Leonato (who was in on Hero’s hoax) then demanded that Claudio pay recompense by marrying a woman of Leonato’s choosing; when Claudio consented, Leonato revealed that the woman was – Hero! (More details on Much Ado About Nothing are in this excellent review.) In this way, Shakespeare and his characters laid the foundation for a lasting, loving marriage based in truth, honesty, and empathy.
Alas, it was not to be. According to Lady Hero’s complaint, Claudio is “short-tempered. Rash, gullible, unperceptive, paranoid, and irrational when angered.” She claims that Claudio constantly suspects her of smooching outside the bonds of marriage and other illegal acts, and that he “frequently snoops in her e-mail, voicemails, and text-messages and, on occasion, even follows her when she leaves the palace.” Moreover, she claims that “Claudio mostly carouses around the palace of her father, Leonato, enjoying his wealthy lifestyle, smoking cigars and drinking martinis.”
For his part, Claudio calls Hero a “diva” who “abandon[ed] her conjugal duties and her role as mistress of the house in favor of wasting days shopping at the Messina Mall and of demeaning him with practical jokes.” He argues against alimony because she has “significant income from the Leonato Family Trust” which she uses to “purchase designer dresses, daily flower deliveries, and to pay a corps of footmen with no observable duties.”
The Messina Supreme Court had the advantage of having the issues sharpened for them by two gifted, experienced lawyers. Reid Weingarten of Steptoe & Johnson LLP spoke for Claudio, passionately arguing that Hero’s petition for divorce should be denied (a position which astonished Justice Garland, who compared it to a sentence of imprisonment) and poo-pooing Hero’s complaint about Claudio’s personality. “Short-tempered. Rash, gullible, unperceptive, paranoid, and irrational when angered,” Weingarten said. “I ask for a show of hands from the women in the audience. Doesn’t that describe every man you know?” (For the record, this reporter’s wife was home during the argument.) He dismissed Hero’s other dissatisfactions. “I know that a half-hour after the verdict, I’m going to be enjoying a Macanudo and the driest martini I can get my hands on.”
Claudio, he insisted, was a mere soldier who could not be expected to support the lavishly expensive tastes of Lady Hero, particularly since she was the beneficiary of the fabulous Leonato Family Trust. Moreover, the dowry Claudio received was an absolute gift upon his marriage to Hero, and the Superior Court’s decision awarding it to him should not be disturbed.
Although Weingarten painted himself as an apostle of love, the skeptical Court appeared to suspect that his client was more motivated by love of money. Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reminded Weingarten that Claudio had asked Don Pedro “Hath Leonato any son, my lord?” and his commander had replied, “No child but Hero; she’s his only heir” before Claudio ever proposed. Weingarten nonetheless averred that Claudio loved Hero independent of her wealth, pronouncing her “sweet” before ever investigating her potential net worth.
Both lawyers were handicapped by the fact that their clients lacked star power when compared to the play’s true luminaries, Beatrice and Benedick. “Off the record,” Justice Elena Kagan asked Weingarten before an audience of eight hundred lawyers, “How’re Beatrice and Benedick doing?” (Weingarten, who was obviously not to be put off message, replied by complaining that Beatrice had instructed Benedick to kill Claudio as evidence of the suffering Hero’s family had put his client through.)
The post-hearing question-and-answer session reinforced the couple’s second-class status, when a few of the written questions confused Claudio with Lysander, a character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Hero’s representative was the famously successful matrimonial attorney Sanford Ain, of Ain & Bank, P.C., a trial and family lawyer of nearly forty years’ experience who is listed in Woodward White’s “The Best Lawyers of America.” Ain argued that alimony is by law allocated on the basis of need, and that Lady Hero, being untrained and having no vocational skills, could not be expected to support herself. (She had been rejected for a spot on “The Real Housewives of Messina,” he explained.) He dismissed Weingarten’s argument that she should draw her support from the Family Trust, noting that her trust income “is irregular and entirely uncertain.” He observed that Leonato, who controls the trust, was as enraged with Hero’s supposed dalliance as was Claudio, and implied that Leonato was not to be…trusted.
Ain also argued that Claudio’s dowry was a “conditional gift” which was contingent on Claudio’s willingness to “care for her and treat her well for the duration of the marriage.” Ain attempted to cite Ewing v. Smith, 3 Des. 417, 457 (S.C. Ct. App. 1811) and Deyoe v. Superior Court, 140 Cal. 476, 482 (1903) in behalf of this proposition, but Justice Samuel Alito objected to the introduction of “foreign law.”
Justice Alito had done some calculating, too. Noting that each florin contained 2.5 grams of gold, Justice Alito figured that the Superior Court had ordered Claudio to pay $5.6 million in alimony per month. Ain argued that the amount was less in circa-1600 Messina, thus illustrating the hazards of having a 400-year time warp between the litigants and the court adjudicating their dispute. (EEOC, please take note.)
Justice Alito had his own agenda on this issue. “[The alimony] makes Hero the richest woman in Messina,” Justice Alito observed, “and yet she pays tax at only 15%, whereas Margaret,” Hero’s Official Saucy Serving Wench, “pays a 30% tax.”
In the end, it was Hero’s potential as a wage-earner, rather than any anticipated distribution from the Leonato Family Trust, which convinced the Court to strike down the alimony award. “She’s young, she has no children,” Chief Justice Ginsburg pointed out, “she has her life ahead of her.” This is, perhaps, not a remarkable observation from someone who entered the workforce at a time when freshly-minted female lawyers were routinely offered jobs as legal secretaries and who later rose to the position of Chief Justice of the Messina Supreme Court. The Court gave Hero the dowry out of a sense of equity, since Claudio would no longer be supporting her with alimony.
U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Alito and Kagan were joined on the Messina High Bench by Judges Merrick B. Garland, Douglas Ginsburg and Brett M. Kavanaugh, all of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals (Judge Ginsburg is on senior status). Sarah E. Mancinelli of the firm of Ain & Bank, PC, co-authored the brief for Hero with Mr. Ain and joined him on counsel’s bench during the argument.
Notwithstanding the Court’s decision to throw out the alimony award, Hero’s counsel pronounced himself satisfied with the overall impact of last night’s proceedings. “I’m delighted with the court’s ruling, in that they recognized the shallow nature of Count Claudio’s character, and the fragility of Lady Hero while at the same time recognizing that greed shall not be rewarded,” Sanford Ain said.
After Justice Ginsburg delivered the verdict, the collected audience reassembled in the commodious Shakespeare Theatre lobby for a champagne toast, courtesy of Woodbridge, by Robert Mondavi. Mr. Weingarten, however, was not to be found. He was doubtlessly somewhere else, enjoying a Macanudo and a very dry martini.