Indiana Yard Sign Battle
- J.A.I.L. News Journal
Los Angeles, California August 29, 2003
LaPorte resident hopes national group will help her battle for yard signsBy LINDA MULLEN
Tribune Staff WriterAugust 25, 2003
LAPORTE -- Ellie Mitchell [elliecat@...] doesn't feel as if anyone's listening to her.
The woman known in LaPorte County for painting complaints on her house is not giving up.
A judge ruled against her, the Indiana Civil Liberties Union told her it didn't have time to listen, and the Indiana Judicial Qualifications Commission called hers an old issue. And last spring, the Indiana Appellate Court refused to hear her.
She's attempted to get the FBI and the Department of Justice involved, but neither treats her with the urgency she wants.
Rather than go away and forget about her fight to post signs in her yard or paint them on her house, Mitchell is joining a nationwide movement to hold judges accountable for constitutional misconduct.
"The facts of this case are the judges who are ignoring the free speech issue," she said.
Mitchell is involved in a nationwide organization called "JAIL," which stands for Judicial Accountability Initiative Law. If the group is successful, JAIL plans to create special grand juries to sit in judgment over all judges. The grand juries would have the ability to fine judges and have the option of removing them from the bench.
The group is hoping that all 50 states will pass an amendment that organizes grand juries to investigate accusations of judicial misconduct, abuse of power and other complaints against judges.
Mitchell is talking up JAIL in Indiana, hoping people will contact their legislators and ask that they pass an amendment to approve JAIL. This is the route she's taking because she feels as if she's wasted years by going to court in LaPorte County.
Her argument centers around her belief that signs on private property are protected by free speech laws. Mitchell's case has been filed with the Indiana Supreme Court.
She wants a new trial to declare she has a constitutional right to display signs in her yard, despite a neighborhood rule prohibiting yard signs.
Mitchell wanted to post a sign in her yard to complain about the quality of her home and the contractor who built it. It's an 8-year-old battle.
In the summer of 1995, Ellie Mitchell and her husband, James, bought a $101,000 home in the Vineyard Hills subdivision along U.S. 35 in LaPorte County. In short order, things started going wrong, she said.
Her list of complaints about the house is long: She claims it smelled like sewage, that builders hit the house with a bulldozer, cracking the foundation, that the furnace went out, dry wall screws "popped out" through the paint, and ink on the sub floor soaked through the linoleum on the kitchen floor.
Unhappy with the workmanship, in 1996, Mitchell posted signs in her yard, complaining about the contractor. The contractor sued, citing a neighborhood covenant prohibiting signs.
In 1998, the Mitchells won the right to display the signs and, the next year, she painted her complaints on the siding of her house, pointing out defects such as a leaky roof and basement.
In 2000, vulgar graffiti appeared on the house.
Mitchell says her house was vandalized, perhaps even by someone in the neighborhood.
A new lawsuit was filed by the neighbors after school buses were rerouted around the house because of the vulgar terms. The neighbors won the suit, but the Mitchells ignored orders to restore their house to the original color.
Ellie Mitchell said she didn't paint the vulgar words on her house, so she didn't feel the responsibility to paint over them.
Facing a per diem fine that eventually totaled $11,928, Mitchell said the judge jailed her husband for contempt of court. Within days, a friend painted the house, and James Mitchell was released.
The Mitchells appealed to the Indiana Court of Appeals, saying the neighborhood covenant violated their free speech rights.
In April, state appellate Judge Michael Barnes wrote the appeal was denied because the Mitchells' attorney did not initially argue free speech. Instead, the lawyer remained focused on the house warranty and that the builder couldn't complain about her signs or the covenant because he had "dirty hands."
The ruling infuriates Mitchell, who says there is a mountain of court documents and transcripts where she repeatedly tried to introduce the free speech issue.
Still, Barnes wrote that because the Mitchells' lawyer did not raise the free speech issue at the right time, "mere mistakes of law do not authorize (reversal) of judgment."
The Mitchells' attorney, Nathaniel Ruff, said recently that he hopes the Supreme Court will consider the issue and order a new trial to see whether the Mitchells can post signs on their property.
"We just want to have a new trial to raise the right of freedom of speech," Ruff said. "We want the judge to give her a chance to raise that defense properly."
Today, the Mitchells' house stands with its original yellow-beige color. The Mitchells remain married, and James Mitchell continues to stand by his wife in her legal battles. He supports her emotionally and financially.
Because of the amount they lost to the neighbors in the lawsuit, the neighbors filed a lien against the Mitchells' house. They can't afford to sell it, she said, because it's of such poor quality and because of the lien.
For information on JAIL, or to contact Ellie Mitchell, she said people can e-mail her at lej4j@....
Staff writer Linda Mullen:
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