A lawyer for Rochelle Sterling turned with a grand gesture and allowed his eyes to sweep over the courtroom as he asked for his first witness.
“I call Donald Sterling,” the lawyer, Pierce O’Donnell, said.
Sterling was nowhere to be found, something O’Donnell surely knew. But the moment was what passed for drama on Monday at the opening of the trial to determine whether Sterling, the disgraced owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was legally removed from the trust by his estranged wife, Rochelle, clearing the way for the team to be sold to the former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer.
There were two lengthy recesses while a federal court judge considered a request by Donald Sterling’s lawyers to have the case moved from state court, and a series of small victories for Rochelle Sterling.
The federal court judge, George H. Wu, kicked the case back to state court by midafternoon, denying Donald Sterling’s argument that his federal privacy rights had been violated by the release of his medical records.
Similar requests to prevent testimony from Meril S. Platzer, one of two doctors who examined Donald Sterling and declared him lacking in capacity, were also rebuffed - repeatedly - by the probate court judge, Michael Levanas. The objections, by Gary Ruttenberg, a lawyer for Donald Sterling, were so incessant that Levanas asked if Ruttenberg wanted to just offer up a blanket objection to all the testimony.
“I’m trying to figure out how we can do this,” the judge said.
When the case resumes Tuesday afternoon, it should be significantly more interesting, because Donald Sterling is expected to take the stand once the cross-examination of Platzer is complete.
“We were very anxious to get Mr. Sterling here to face the music,” said one of Rochelle Sterling’s lawyers, Bert Fields, who has built a reputation for his questioning of witnesses in celebrity trials. “He’s the guy who keeps delaying, who keeps doing anything he can to keep his family from getting the $2 billion that they’re entitled to. Why? Just because of his ego.”
Donald Sterling’s lawyer, Bobby Samini, explained his client’s absence as perfectly reasonable given the possible move to federal court. Rochelle Sterling did not return to court after the first recess, about 9:20 a.m.
Samini said that how Donald Sterling performed on the witness stand could influence the outcome. Fields conceded that line of examination would be narrow, confined to the question of whether Rochelle Sterling had committed fraud in having her husband declared incompetent.
“I think it’s going to be important, and I have absolute confidence that Donald’s testimony is going to be very, very telling for everybody who observes it,” Samini said. “He does not lack capacity in any way, and I think everyone will see that for themselves.”
The cross-examination of Platzer could also prove significant. The trust requires that for a trustee to be removed two doctors must certify that the trustee is lacking capacity.
O’Donnell spent much of his time directing Platzer, a neurologist, to establish her credentials as an expert in her field and also affirm that when she met with Rochelle Sterling, Donald Sterling, Samini and a family friend for dinner and drinks at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, it was not part of Platzer’s evaluation.
O’Donnell asked if anything happened during that dinner that influenced her assessment of Donald Sterling.
“Absolutely not,” Platzer said.
She answered all other questions with a degree of certainty, except for one.
When O’Donnell asked Platzer if she had anything to drink with her meal, Platzer said: “I don’t recall. But probably yes. I had a half a glass of wine.”
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