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TEE'D OFF: Judge's country club/golf course ruling fuels new Opus controversy

Of the People, By the People, FORE! the People

COLUMBIA, Mo 9/14/14 (Beat Byte) -- Run-of-the-mill court hearings don't usually attract much attention -- when they occur at the courthouse. 

But Boone County Judge Kevin Crane's reported hearing at the Columbia Country Club over a restraining order against the Opus Group is raising eyebrows, as much for the optics of privilege as for its unusual timing.   

Attorneys for plaintiffs Betty Wilson and Michael MacMann filed a motion to temporarily restrain Opus from further construction on its controversial 259-unit downtown Columbia student apartment until a lawsuit over public infrastructure funding is resolved.  

U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey quashed an earlier restraining order last Friday, sending Opus back to the wrecking balls.  The group is demolishing existing properties on the construction site, and may receive taxpayer-funded infrastructure despite two successful petitions opposing the expenditure.     

Judge Crane okayed the second restraining order Friday morning, then allegedly reversed himself a few hours later in the country club's parking lot, either before or after a luncheon and a round of golf.  
 
A source close to the situation told the Columbia Heart Beat Opus attorney Thomas Harrison -- a partner with leading CoMo development lawyer Craig van Matre -- contacted the judge outside of court (so-called "ex parte" communication, another eyebrow raiser) to arrange the unusual meeting.  

Harrison then allegedly contacted plaintiff's attorney Josh Oxenhandler "who at first couldn't believe the request:  meet a Judge during his off-hours tee time to hear a routine motion that could have waited until Monday morning," the source told the Heart Beat.  "Josh said he didn't think it was a good idea to interrupt a Judge during his off-hours, but Harrison insisted." 

The two attorneys met Crane at the club, where he heard arguments in the parking lot, then quashed the restraining order pending a Monday morning hearing.  

With its overtones of power and privilege -- as a full Circuit Court Judge, Crane sits at the highest level of the Boone County Judiciary -- the club house-turned-courthouse saga quickly caught the attention of local media.  
 
"Oxenhandler said Harrison told him he knew that Crane was at a luncheon at the country club," the Columbia Missourian reported.   "He asked Oxenhandler to come with him to seek out the judge.  Oxenhandler said he initially declined, then later went to the club after Harrison called to say he had found the judge." 

"Crane called a hearing Friday in the parking lot of a local country club where the judge had a scheduled tee time," the Columbia Daily Tribune reported "Oxenhandler said Crane dissolved the restraining order against the city 'on the spot.'" 

Judge Crane and defendant attorneys have not spoken to the media about the hearing.  Oxenhandler spoke with reporters from the Missourian and Tribune.   Fellow plaintiffs' attorney Jeremy Root is reportedly out of town and unavailable for comment. 

Crane has also made recent headlines over his handling of the Ryan Ferguson case as Boone County Prosecutor.   An appeals court in 2013 overturned Ferguson's conviction for the murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sportswriter Kent Heitholt, basing part of its decision on defense evidence Crane withheld during Ferguson's trial.  

Though prosecutorial immunity left them unable to sue for misconduct, Ferguson and his family filed libel and civil rights suits against Crane.   Judge Laughrey dismissed those suits last month



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