That growing body of Americans who appear to think of litigation as a punch in the nose by other means would do well to consider the case of Lewis v. Lewis. After their divorce three years ago Marilyn Lewis, 35, began pummeling her ex, Pittsburgh truck driver Richard Lewis, with lawsuits—19 to date. Understandably, Richard figured there ought to be a law. Fortunately for him, there is. After dogged research, his attorney unearthed an antique Pennsylvania statute that prohibits persistent “unjust and vexatious” litigation. The crime, a misdemeanor, is called barratry, and last fall Marilyn Lewis became the first American woman ever convicted of it. Now awaiting sentencing, she could be smacked with a $2,500 fine and a year in prison.
Since their divorce after 12 years of marriage, Richard Lewis—who says he is “36 going on 102″—has incurred more than $20,000 in legal fees to defend himself against charges ranging from child abuse and criminal assault to slander and conspiracy. At one point Marilyn even applied for a permit to demolish the house he lives in. “I think she’s in dire need of help,” he says. “I feel sorry for her.” Like Marilyn, he has not remarried and he wishes her scorn would cool “so I could go on with my life.”
But the local chapter of the National Organization for Women has made Marilyn a cause, and she is still swinging. Unemployed, she has gone through seven lawyers and a borrowed bankroll of $25,000 in her legal assault. Claiming that Richard twice mistreated their son, she continues to defy a court order to grant him visitation rights, and he has had only one courtroom glimpse of their two children—Richard III, 14, and Colleen, 10—since 1976. “I will not be intimidated,” she says.
Marilyn now spends much of her time in law libraries getting an on-the-case legal education. “People are intimidated by attorneys’ Latin mumbo-jumbo,” scoffs Marilyn, who once represented herself in State Superior Court. “In 15 years I want to be a justice of the Supreme Court.” In the meantime she is busily planning new litigious forays. Recent suits for conspiracy that she brought against Richard’s lawyer, a city official and a judge have been dismissed, but she’s still mulling suits against the Pittsburgh D.A. and sheriff’s office for illegal arrest in the barratry case. As for her sentencing, Marilyn says, there’s no cause for worry: She’s planning to appeal, of course.