WASHINGTON — Television has been kind to Florida's "Judge Alex," but the Supreme Court probably won't be.
On Monday, state-judge-turned-TV-celebrity Alex Ferrer seemed to stumble in the judicial big leagues: the Supreme Court. In a complex case involving labor arbitration, Ferrer's attorney G. Eric Brunstad Jr. faced a barrage of questions from the high court's justices that turned downright hostile at times.
"If you have repeated statements in your brief that require qualifications, if the court . . . is concerned with the accuracy of one of your citations, shouldn't we view with some skepticism what you tell us?" Justice Anthony Kennedy asked Brunstad.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg similarly sounded like a critic who'd seen one too many reality-TV shows, telling Ferrer's attorney, "I think you got it wrong," in characterizing a particular issue. Under judicial badgering that might have made boffo TV drama if only the justices allowed cameras in the courtroom, Brunstad offered multiple concessions and clarifications.
"My attorney can take it," Ferrer said afterward. "Sometimes you get a cold bench. Sometimes you get a warm bench."
Ferrer and a Los Angeles-based talent manager named Arnold M. Preston are in dispute over their contract, with Preston demanding 12 percent of Ferrer's television earnings. Ferrer said the contract was invalid because Preston was never licensed as an agent.
Ferrer wants the California Labor Commissioner to handle the dispute. Preston wants the dispute handled through arbitration. The Supreme Court took the case to answer the question of whether federal law directing arbitration pre-empts the California law that gives the state labor commission authority over performing artists' contracts.
Most justices sounded sympathetic Monday to the business argument that arbitration is the way to go.
"I used to teach contract law, and I am sure that if you agree to arbitrate, it means you won't litigate," Justice Antonin Scalia said. "And even if I didn't ever teach contract law, it would still be the law."
Macy's, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business interests agree, and filed legal briefs backing Preston. Businesses typically prefer arbitration, with the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, based in Sacramento, Calif., arguing that arbitration is "cheaper and more efficient" than what critics fear would be endless legal reviews.
The Screen Actors Guild and other groups that represent performers respond that the state law establishing an initial contract review by the California Labor Commissioner makes sense for the entertainment industry.
"It is critical to protecting vulnerable individuals in an environment where aspirants will do almost anything to 'make it big,' " the Screen Actors Guild declared in a legal brief.
In Ferrer's case, Preston helped set up a meeting with several television executives and producers. Ferrer subsequently began working with two of the producers, but he says his 2-year-old nationally syndicated show wasn't a result of the meeting that Preston arranged. Preston disagrees.
In court Monday, Ferrer didn't say a word. Outside, the former Coral Gables, Fla., police officer and 10-year veteran of the Florida bench kept his smile. On the Supreme Court steps after the hour-long oral argument, Ferrer declared himself "impressed" with the high court.
"I'd much rather be here as an attorney than as a party (to a case)," Ferrer acknowledged.
A Cuba native and Miami resident, Ferrer served as an elected judge from 1995 to 2005. That September, he premiered the latest variation of the familiar courtroom formula in which a quipster judge showcases his personality while arbitrating minor civil disputes.
"Judge Alex will take control of his courtroom by delivering a straightforward, decisive and tough brand of justice," the show's Web site declares.
This week, for instance, the show is airing disputes with titles that include "The Seedy Motel" and "Deadbeat Boyfriend." It doesn't offer a catchy title for Ferrer's own court appearance, though phrases such as "Supreme Court Spanking" come to mind.