0 N AUGUST 5 of last year, one week after the picketing began, Lana Robinson called the Observer office. “We’ve decided we’re going to reclaim our home, she said. “We’re going to cut the locks and move back in.” In a letter to First National Chief Executive Officer J.D. Quesenbury, Lana Robinson explained the justification for her family’s action: “Under the present Constitution,_ _ no mortgage, trust deed, or other lien on the homestead can be valid except for purchase money, whether executed by the husband or by the husband and wife jointly; and every pretended sale of the homestead involving any condition of defeasance is On August 6, as Cleburne Eagle editor Shirley McKee focused her 35-millimeter camera, Melvin Robinson cut the lock that the bank had placed on the front gate and led his family up the winding road that led to the home that they had left almost three years earlier. It was an action that got the bank’s attention. Within weeks the Robinsons were in the Clifton justice of the peace court of Alvin James. It is not often that a Hughes & Luce attorney tries an forcible entry and detainer case in a justice of the peace court. The Dallas-based law firm, which once counted among its many partners former Chief Justice John Hill, is considered ‘one of the state’s legal powerhouses. And it is even more uncommon for a Hughes & Luce attorney to face a pro se defendant whose formal education ended at Cleburne High School. But after watching Justice of the Peace James, who is not a lawyer, defer to Hughes & Luce attorney Jim McCarthy, it was evident that in a court of law resolve and native intelligence are no match for three years of law school and 10 years before the bar. What wasevident was that the Robinsons needed legal counsel. At the end of the 20-minute proceeding, during which the Robinsons were denied a continuance and admonished by the Justice of the Peace, McCarthy said: “If you’re . in this situation again Mr. Robinson, use Rule seven-fortyeight. If you want a continuance, that’s the way to go.” A week later, the Robinsons, -still without legal counsel, were back in the justice of the peace court where they were ordered to leave the home that they had occupied. Sitting in the Clifton Dairy Queen, after the first justice of the peace hearing, Robinson said that he could find no one to represent him. “It’s a good ol’ boy system,” Robinson said, explaining that no lawyer in Cleburne wanted to go up against the bank. He said that he had been in half a dozen lawyers’ offices in Waco, Dallas, and Fort Worth. No one wanted to take a case already abandoned by attorneys who claimed they had a conflict with the plaintiffs. On the day after their first hearing before Justice of the Peace James, the RobinsOns were in the Austin law offices of Roy Minton, whom Assistant Attorney General Larry Bales suggested might represent them. But Minton couldn’t take their case and two weeks after they met with Minton, the Robinsons were ordered’ out of their: home. “They!re going to have to come and carry us out;” Robinson said. “And when they carry ‘us out we’re coming back. And if they put us in jail, they might as well know that when we get out of jail we’re coming back home. I don’t think that the bank is going to want to do that.” .He was right. Whil6 the Robinsons’continued to occupy what they claimed was their home, they also continued to look for legal counsel. Their RICO suit had been dismissed in Dallas by Judge Joe Fish, who claimed that it failed to establish the difference between an individual and an enterprise. Something in the judge’s dismissal of a pro se plaintiff’s lawsuit on a technicality must have bothered Baylor Law professor Brian Serr. The case statement had been prepared by the Robinsons after Melvin Robinson had spent two weeks in the Baylor law library. Serr described the 42-page RICO pleading as “as good a job as any layman could do” and agreed to argue the appeal before the Fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans. Federal court proceeding _s were intentionally liberalized, Serr said, to make it easier for pro se plaintiffs. “There is room within the federal riles for a layman to plead a case,” Serr aid, suggesting that Judge Fish’s ruling was “not in accordance with the spirit of those rules.” In September of 1988, several months after Serr agreed to argue only the appeal, Robert Taylor of Houston agreed to represent the Robinsons in federal court \(should Taylor took the case only four days before the statute of limitations would run out. On Tuesday, August 30, exactly four years from the day that they lost their homestead, Melvin Robinson raced to Houston, determined to beat a statute of limitations that he could see expiring on his wristwatch. In Houston, he met with Taylor and together they made revisions in the case statement before making the 64 copies that had to be filed by 4:30 p.m. in Bosque County. At 4:15, Robinson filed his final lawsuit in the county courthouse in Meridian. Several months later Jim Terrell of Waco agreed to serve as local co-counsel with Taylor. First National Bank began to talk settlement. The bank had already changed. owpership; John Kelly was no longer an employee there. Nor was Jack Standley, whose family had been involved in Johnson County banking for several generations. And there were other signs that things were not going so well at First National Bank. On a morning in early April of this year, two houses were scheduled to be auctioned on the steps of the JohnSon Cdunty Courthouse. One was the house of Jack Standley, a former chief executive’ officer at First National Bank, the other was owned by John Kelly. Each of the men had signed on as the other’s trustee on the two separate deeds of trust by which the bank had loaned the money to buy the houses. The auction posting included the name of a substitute trustee: John Quesenbury, now the CEO at First National Bank. Quesenbury was serving as a substitute for both Standley and Kelly former employees who were losing their property. As potential buyers gathered at the courthouse, Melvin Robinson stood back and watched. In a small town, this might have been more attention than a bank could endure. A few days before May 5, the date that Serr was scheduled to argue the Robinsons’ appeal in New Orleans, attorneys for First National Bank came to terms with the Robinsons. The Robinsons will not discuss the settlement but the Cleburne Eagle, scrappy weekly that is using aggressive news coverage to make a run at an established daily, again beat their competitor and reported the terms of ‘the settlement as leaked by an informant: “the homestead property, the ranch house and approximately 200 acres, free and unencu,mhered; a release to Melvin Robinson of oil and gas leases located in West Texas, again, unencumbered; release from approximately $1.3 million of indebtedness; and payment of fees to the Robinsons’ attorney in a sum reported to be in excess of $100,000.” Lana Robinson would only say that she was angry that someone was divulging information about their settlement. Melvin Robinson, in an act that should surprise no one, referred Cleburne Eagle editor Shirley McKee to the county courthouse: “All I can tell you is that public records will show if there is a deed record.” The Robinsons have won. by the standards they had defined in previous interviews, only a partial victory. They lost 200 acres that was not included in the homestead and they did not get the court’s resounding affirmation of the Constitution’s ‘homestead provision. Nor did Lana and Melvin Robinson get satisfactory answers to the many questions they wanted to ask of bank officials under oath and in a Court of law. And there were broader issues that the settlement obviously will not resolve. IssUes that have affected people beyond the small circle of plaintiffs and defendants who for four years have fought over principle and property. They are issues that Lana Robinson said should be addressed in the state legislature, or before a Congressional committee: “Somebody needs to really investigate these banks.” Mrs. Robinson said six months ago in the living room of a house that she then claimed she owned. .”Somebody needs to ask them about what all those loans would have done if they’d gone to productive businesses in Johnson County.” THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9
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