And a 1966 casefile recently discovered by the Tarrant County District Clerk’s office proves one thing: The State Bar of Texas hated San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli—so much that it took steps to ensure he could never practice in the Lone Star State’s courts again after defending Jack Ruby of murder in 1964.
The case file, State Bar of Texas v. Belli, was discovered earlier this month by clerks who are the process of digitizing all of county’s old case files for storage purposes, said Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder. Wilder said that while most paper cases of that vintage are eventually discarded, cases like Belli are saved for their historical value.
“In reading the pleadings it seemed like it was just an attempt to take a whack at Melvin Belli,” Wilder said of the case file.
The pleading, filed in May of 1966 in Tarrant County’s 96th District Court, was filed there because Belli apparently had a case pending in that court at the time. The pleading filed by the bar’s then general counsel Davis Grant alleged that Belli was not a “reputable” attorney and therefore should not be allowed to practice in the court under the State Bar’s rules of admission.
The source of the bar’s ire, according to the pleadings, were the numerous colorful statements Belli gave to a hungry press after Ruby was convicted of murder for killing presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Many of the statements concerned Belli’s distaste for Texas’ criminal justice system—in particular Dallas District Judge Joe B. Brown, who presided over Ruby’s trial.
Belli represented Ruby pro bono and unsuccessfully argued to a Dallas County jury that Ruby was legally insane at the time he shot and killed Oswald.
One of Belli’s quotes, according to the pleading, included: “I think we have a good chance in the Criminal Court of Appeals. All Texas isn’t like this place here. They’re going to chastise this kangaroo pouch judge [Brown] who sat on this case. He didn’t walk to the bench; he hopped.”
Another Belli quote from the pleading: “I don’t need Judge Brown’s compliments. I’m sorry I shook hands. He has blood on it. He told me in private that he wouldn’t have given this case up for love or money.”
The bar’s pleading called on Belli to answer for his statements, lest he be barred from practicing in Texas courts. The pleading had numerous news articles featuring Belli’s hot quotes filed as attachments along with letter of support for the action from the American Bar Association and letters from individual Texas lawyers who did not care for Belli’s behavior.
Belli was unconcerned by the pleading. According a June 1966 letter he wrote to the judge of the 96th District Court, Belli indicated that he no intention of returning to Texas to face the allegations and denied that he or his law firm had any cases pending in Texas.
“We think, in view of the ex parte publicity given upon this same matter, my appearance in the Ruby case, both the American Bar and the Texas Bar, I should reply in kind publicly in the newspapers, however, I am presently constrained so to do,” Belli wrote. “This does not mean either that we are not anxious fully and publicly to contest the subject matter of the American Bar and the Texas Bar charges [they are both the same] or that we are loathe indefinitely to present our side to the public.”
“The letter was thumbing his nose, saying I’m not coming back down,” Wilder said of Belli, “which is typical.”
According to a marking on the file, the bar’s case against Belli was ultimately dismissed in 1968 for want of prosecution.
The once-forgotten Belli case file has been moved to a secure storage site, where it can be examined by permission along with other famous Tarrant County case filed —among them the murder case of wealthy Fort Worth oilman T. Cullen Davis—Wilder said.
“We’re going to keep the historical paper records to the extent that we can. Just the signatures have some historically value,” Wilder said. “That Belli signature would be worth some bucks at a memorabilia store.”