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Lawyer Fights Pornography With Statute and Brimstone

February 23, 1986|BARRY S. SURMAN | Times Staff Writer

He sounds like a small-town preacher. And like a relentless legal tactician.

To James J. Clancy, who abandoned plans for a career in tax law 24 years ago, fighting pornography is both a passion and a profession.

"I believe in it," he said. "I think that right now we're at Dunkirk. . . . What has occurred (the spread of pornography) is damaging to the morals of this nation. This is a crisis."

The 64-year-old Sun Valley attorney has argued against pornography in cases from San Diego to Ohio to Washington state, usually on behalf of cities trying to shut down X-rated movie theaters and adult bookstores.

Employs 'Legalese'

And he does it with a combination of fiery rhetoric and complex legal arguments, sometimes leaving courtroom observers and even clients--usually city council members--puzzled by his liberal use of "legalese." Sometimes, said Corona Councilman William Miller, it seems Clancy is speaking a different language.

"He eats, sleeps, drinks and breathes this issue, and I admire that commitment," said Miller, who brought Clancy to Corona in 1983 to fight the city's first and only adult bookstore.

"I've received calls from him at six in the morning and eleven at night," Miller said, "(asking) what action the City Council took, or what the (news)papers said. . . .

"What impressed me was his commitment to the issue. Some attorneys fight pornography one day and defend it the next," Miller said. "He acts with the fervor of an old-time preacher. He's on a crusade, but it's obviously a crusade that a lot of people agree with."

'A Corrupted Nation'

Unfortunately, Clancy claimed, the courts are not quite so supportive of either morality or of the law. "AIDS, herpes . . . how did this come about? The extreme licentiousness that the courts have allowed. . . . We have become a corrupted nation."

For about 10 years, Clancy's primary tactic against that corruption has been to seek court rulings that the purveyors of pornography constitute public nuisances, thus justifying their forced closure.

His latest twist on the strategy is to file a lawsuit every week against the Mitchell Bros. adult movie theater in Santa Ana, seeking to declare each new film legally obscene and accumulate a body of evidence to prove the theater a public nuisance.

Tom Steel, attorney for the theater, thinks the approach will meet with little success, "but it will cost the City of Santa Ana and the defendants a tremendous amount of money. . . . I would have to characterize his legal tactics as extreme and also bizarre.

"I can't characterize his tactics as brilliant or innovative," Steel said. "They're just wrong."

In Corona, city officials believe Clancy's approach is right on the money and attribute the closure of the only adult bookstore in that city to his efforts.

Corona tried to fight the Adult Book Store by enacting zoning restrictions, an approach that suffered repeated failures because owner Helen Ebel had opened the store before the zoning was changed in 1981.

Federal judges barred the city from enforcing the ordinance on the store, and their rulings were upheld by the U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals last August.

Clancy suggested the city take a different tack, penning a city ordinance banning "public nuisances" and suing in state court to close the store.

The city carted piles of movies, magazines and sexual aids out of the store as evidence. But before the nuisance case ever came to trial, Ebel agreed to close her store, if the city paid for her attorney's fees and assumed the lease on her central Corona storefront.

"Clancy's efforts are what led to her closing the bookstore and leaving town," Miller said.

Respected by Opponent

Roger Diamond, the Pacific Palisades attorney representing Ebel, agrees that Clancy is a tough and extremely dedicated opponent of adult bookstores and theaters. But he attributes the closure not to Clancy's persistence but to Ebel's desire to recoup her legal costs and get her business out of a location that was not very profitable.

"I admire him very much," Diamond said. "I think he's very sincere in his beliefs. . . . He really believes in what he's doing and he's very aggressive; he keeps pushing. I learned that in the Corona case. He just keeps on pushing."

Although the store was closed in December, remnants of the Corona case plod on through the courts as Clancy attempts to reverse a state Supreme Court decision disqualifying him from representing the city.

Clancy agreed to charge the city $60 an hour if he closed the bookstore, and only $30 if he did not, but the high court ruled that such a fee agreement is poor public policy and that it is "unethical for a public attorney to have a contingency fee agreement," Diamond said.

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