"If there's any truth to the old proverb that 'One who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client,' the Court by its opinion today now bestows a constitutional right on one to make a fool of himself."
Justice Harry Blackmun, in a 1975 Supreme Court decision
Jeremiah J. DiGiovanni, a self-employed sign-painter from Prince George's county, recently invoked his constitutional rights by acting as his own attorney, and despite the old proverb, won his case.
Claiming that a Silver Hill real estate man had unlawfully evicted his family from their Upper Marlboro home, DiGiovanni, a 43-year-old college dropout, sued the real estate firm and appeared in County Circuit court on his own behalf before Judge Jacob S. Levin.
Amid chortles from spectators, raised eyebrows from the judge, and repeated protests from a battery of high-powered attorneys representing the other side, DiGiovanni peered over his notes, carefully peppered his witnesses with questions, and paced back and forth before the jury like any good lawyer.
DiGiovanni argued that his eviction was illegal and disrupted his family life. "We lived in every motel in Prince George's County," he said yesterday.
To the surprise of hardened courtroom observers, DiGiovanni prevailed.
On Feb. 29, the jury ruled in his favor, awarding him and his son a total of $10,500.
Court Sources said it was very rare for an individual to successfully represent himself for that lengthy a trial in circuit court without legal assistance.
DiGiovanni, who said his legal battle has depleted his finances, was not satisfied with the jury's award. Last week, he filed a request with Judge Levin for a new trial "to get the rightamount" -- $100,000 -- to compensate him for disruptions to his family and business.
"I tried to do the best I could to get my points across to the jury," DiGiovanni explained in an interview. "But the other side objected to everything I said. I couldn't talk. They thought it was a big joke."
His courtroom style prompted strong reactions from lawyers representing the realtor. "Is it not true. . . " DiGiovanni would ask witnesses, and within seconds the trio of opposing attorneys would leap to their feet objecting to his line of questioning.
"Ask another question," Judge Levin directed DiGiovanni numerous times. The lawyers, satisfied, would sit down until another question by DiGiovanni again raised their ire. Then the scene would be repeated.
"Ask another question," Judge Levin would repeat.
"I think Judge Levin was pretty decent to me," DiGiovanni said yesterday. "This is something new to me."
The self-appointed lawyer claimed that when the Stan Ridgeway Real Estate Co. evited his family in March 1977 from DiGiovanni's residence at 13005 Barnwell Pl., Upper Marlboro, the realtors did not have the proper legal authorization.
Lawyers for the realtor adjusted their courtroom strategy when they learned DiGiovanni was representing himself.
"One of the things the lawyers involved talked about beforehand was to what extent to make objections." said attorney Jeffrey B. Fisher. "We didn't want the jury to feel we were ganging up on him, or feel sorry for him. So, except in certain cases, we decided to let him ramble on."
By the end of the first day, Fisher said, their strategy changed. "We were no longer concerned about the jury feeling sorry for him."
If he wins his request for a new trial, DiGiovanni said he might change his tactics. "I wasn't going to use myself this time.I was thinking of using a retired judge as my lawyer."