Monday, August 10, 2015

Trial by Combat: Making a Comeback

Last week, a county court filing by Staten Island attorney Richard A. Luthmann became an unexpected media sensation. Luthmann is being sued by creditors of a former client, who allege that the attorney advised their debtor to liquidate assets in order to avoid a judgment collection. It’s not the sort of case which usually garners such widespread publicity, but Luthmann also isn't a typical defendant. In a July 24 reply affirmation, he derided the plaintiffs' "moronic" legal argument and "thug tactics," called opposing counsel's visualization of the case timeline "a glorified comic book piled on top of pure and adulterated extortion," and ended with a formal demand for a Trial By Combat.

What's a trial by combat, some may ask? You'd be forgiven for not knowing, since a recorded example has not occurred in centuries. Also known as "judicial combat" or "the wager of battle," a trial by combat allowed the outcome of a judicial dispute to be determined by a duel. The long history and development of this fascinating medieval practice is detailed in Carpenter's Foundations of Modern Jurisprudence (1958), available in the library and in HeinOnline; as well as in George Neilson's 1890 treatise Trial by Combat, available online.

Illustration of a marital judicial duel, 15th century Germany
Illustration of a "marital duel" from Hans Talhoffer's
15th-century Fechtbuch (Fight Book). Men were given
the physical handicap of a waist-deep pit to balance
their size advantage against a woman.
Text available at the Internet Archive.

Luthmann, an admitted fan of the book and television series Game of Thrones (set in a land where this medieval European legal right can also be invoked), details the history of trial by combat in the last ten pages of his filing with citations to the Neilson treatise and other legal history materials. He asserts that no U.S. jurisdiction has outlawed the practice, which remained legal (albeit archaic) in Britain at the time of America's founding, "and thus trial by combat remains a right reserved to the people and a valid alternative to civil action." As he told the local news media, "They want to be absurd about what they're trying to do, then I'll give them back ridiculousness in kind."

Will Luthmann prevail in the lawsuit against him, whether it's in the courtroom or a fighting pit? Interested readers can track the outcome at the New York eCourts WebCivil Supreme service, with a search for the Index Number 150175/2014. From there, researchers can access a case calendar and view e-filed documents, like the July 24 reply affirmation. The next scheduled appearance in this case should take place on Friday, August 28.

For additional tips on accessing court filings, check out the library's research guide to Court Records and Briefs. To learn more about the history of trials by combat, search the Duke Libraries Catalog for the subject heading "Wager of Battle" to view available print and electronic titles like the Neilson treatise and James P. Gilchrist's A Brief Display of the Origin and History of Ordeals (1821). For help accessing these or other resources, be sure to Ask a Librarian.