Obiter Dicta

Exuberant or Exhibitionist?

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According to the most recent U.S. census, the tiny town of Marshall, N.C. (population 842), has about 75 males for every 100 females. So a wom­an who appears to be trying to improve her odds is likely to be met with resistance of one type or another.

In December 2000, Rebecca Willis attended the weekly dance at the Marshall Depot community center. Willis, then 56, is said to have been dressed, shall we say, less conservatively than other women in attendance, and she danced with exuberance and a bit of abandon.

Some say more than a bit.

Willis received a letter from the town’s mayor informing her that she was banned for life from returning to the Depot. Her case was eventually taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation. Jon Sasser of Ellis & Winters in Raleigh, who handled the case for the ACLU, says townspeople were less than forthcoming in regard to details about the night in question.

“They came up with one lie after another” in depo­sitions, he says. “They were basically a bunch of old ladies who don’t like to see anyone else having fun.”

During more than six years, the case made its way through two district courts and two courts of appeal. Asheville attorney Larry Leake, who represented Marshall, says the town prevailed on seven of the eight issues raised by the plaintiff.

But in May, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Richmond, Va., said the case could proceed to trial on the basis of equal pro­tection. At that point, the town’s insurance carrier decided to settle rather than incur more litigation expenses. Willis was paid $275,000.

Leake says emphatically that “the town of Marshall does not agree with the settlement,” and that Willis continues to be banned from the Depot.

Sasser sums up the case this way: “Every once in a while, towns need to think before they start voting people off the island.”

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