Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law (Ep. 1-4)

Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law is one of the original Adult Swim programs, similar in style and concept to the truly classic Spage Ghost Coast to Coast and produced by the same company. But instead of re-purposing old Hanna Barbera cartoons to make a surrealistic talk show, they’re re-purposing old Hanna Barbera cartoons to make a surrealistic legal sitcom of sorts.  In this post we’re talking about the first four episodes of the first season, which are available on DVD.

I. Bannon Custody Battle

Race Bannon challenges Dr. Benton Quest for custody of Johnny Quest and Hadji. It’s strongly implied that Bannon and Quest Sr. are in a romantic relationship, and Bannon takes the position that since he’s the one that spends all the time with the kids that he should have primary custody.

Of course, custody disputes don’t really come up when partners are getting along, and while Johnny is Quest Sr.’s biological son, Hadji is adopted at best. So there’s a few legal issues going on here. But testimony is offered by a bunch of characters all of whom testify that it was Bannon, not Quest, who actually raised the kids. This is the kind of thing that would come out in a true custody hearing. Also, we’ve never heard of a situation of a caretaker being hired by a parent and then challenging the parent for custody, so the fact that Bannon and Quest Sr. are impliedly involved is part of what makes this whole thing even thinkable. The legal system hasn’t necessarily figured out how to deal with custody disputes between same-gendered couples, where only one or possibly neither partner is biologically related to the children. Courts do care about biological relations, and will generally honor them unless there’s been a formal adoption. So it almost doesn’t matter how absentminded Quest Sr. is. It’s hard to see how Bannon wins this ever.

But it turns out that “Bannon” is actually a robot. The real Bannon is on vacation. So, problem solved?

II. Very Personal Injury

Apache Chief is a former Super Friend whose power is to grow larger and return to normal size at will. Rest assured, the writers waste no opportunity to make erection jokes. But the plot here is that he casually saves the world, then goes inside for coffee where he spills the coffee on himself. He burns himself and loses the ability to grow. Queue the impotence jokes.

If you take the superpowers out of it, the way this trial goes down isn’t as outlandish as it seems, allowing for the normal departures from civil procedure that all law shows involve. Plaintiff’s counsel for personal injury lawsuits frequently go out of their way to paint their clients as veritable Mother Teresas. Some even go so far as to make multimedia presentations about their clients for mediation and even possibly for trial. Pictures of former activities, demonstrations of current disabilities, and tons of crap about how wonderful a person the plaintiff is. Defense counsel don’t pay any attention to this, and most of the time juries don’t either. Sometimes you’ll get a truly unusual case, but most plaintiffs are just regular schmoes like you and me. But the dog and pony show is pretty much a given.

Also, discussions about a plaintiff’s emotional state and alleged embarrassment are pretty common. Emotional injury usually considered to be an independent tort, not an element of damages, but whether or not it’s specifically plead, juries want to know that. So those discussions are also on point.

But the episode does get one thing wrong: the fact that Apache Chief ultimately regains his powers does not mean that his case gets dismissed. The claim may be worth considerably less now, but temporary injury is still injury.

III. Shaggy Busted

On the way to the old cotton mill, Shaggy and Scooby are busted when a cop notices the Mystery Machine “driving erratically.” When the cop approaches, Shaggy and Scooby are laughing uncontrollably and talking about a green monster at the old mill. The van is also not in great shape, so there’s quite a bit of smoke in the air. The cop naturally assumes that the two are high as a kite and asks them to get out of the van. Shaggy punches it, but the two are ultimately arrested.

As Wilma puts it, it isn’t that Shaggy and Scooby are doing drugs. They’re just stupid and always hungry. But the way the prosecutor puts on the case is highly objectionable. Videos of a criminal defendant taken at times other than the time period during which the charged offenses were allegedly committed and edited in such a way as to suggest that the defendant is a stoner would never be admissible in court. Also, the prosecution always goes first, so why Harvey leads off is beyond us. Lastly, even if the cops believed that Shaggy and Scooby were telling the truth about the green monster, driving erratically is still a chargeable offense, albeit probably only a misdemeanor or violation.

IV. Death by Chocolate

Turns out Boo Boo Bear is actually the Unabooboo. Raging against the influence of corporations on modern society, he has retired to his cave and written a rambling, paranoid manifesto. And sent booby-trapped cookie baskets to CEOs all over the country. But Yogi gets suspicious and drops a dime on him, and the cops take ’em down.

The plot is taken loosely from the 1985 film Jagged Edge, and most of what goes on is devoted more to the surreality of the whole thing than anything else. But the episode suggests that the cops got a confession out of Boo Boo by beating it out of him, complete with live, non-animated footage of a few guys beating up a guy in a bear costume. This is clearly a violation of Boo Boo’s Fifth Amendment rights. As such the confession would never have made it into evidence. If the cops have procured evidence improperly, defense counsel will file a motion in limine on the subject to keep the jury from hearing it at all.


For a surrealistic comedy show, Harvey Birdman has a surprising number of legal concepts worth talking about. We’re likely to return to this at some point.

13 responses to “Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law (Ep. 1-4)

  1. “The legal system hasn’t necessarily figured out how to deal with custody disputes between same-gendered couples, where only one or possibly neither partner is biologically related to the children.”

    It seems to have figured out how to deal with such disputes between mixed gender couples where there is no biological relationship. (I.E. in the case of an adopted child.) Ditto for mixed sex couples where only one is related to the child. (I.E. in the case of remarriage after divorce.) Why would a same sex couple custody battle not play out along those same lines?

    • Formal adoption would, of course, change things quite a bit. And marriage also changes things. So in your examples, we’ve got either a formal adoption, which courts know how to deal with, or marriage, which is also a known quantity. But what we’ve got here is more like an unmarried, co-habiting couple where the kids are only related to one of them. In those sorts of situations, the non-relative generally doesn’t have much in the way of rights.

      So you’re right in that the difference between same-gender and mixed-gender couples is less than might have been implied, but the fact is that when faced with a situation where no one is related to the kids either biologically or legally, the courts are going to have a hard time with that.

      • In many states, adoption hasn’t been all that easy. In Texas as of August 2015:

        “The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services also will wait on the legislature before changing how it operates, according to spokeswoman Julie Moody. Gay couples in the state will have to continue to have one member of the couple formally adopt the child, she said, and then the other member has to come back later to do a second parent adoption—a similar process to a step parent adopting a stepchild”.

        Texas (and other states) has been real reluctant to allow both partners to fully adopt as parents in a same sex relationship. So one is probably being seen as “primary”.

  2. Is it possible that Race and Dr. Quest are common-law? I guess it would depend on what state they live in (for some reason I’m assuming California.)

    • Do you mean common-law spouses? That would depend on the particulars. California has abolished common-law marriage but will recognize a common-law marriage that was valid in the state in which it was formed. See, e.g., Estate of DePasse, 97 Cal.App.4th 92 (2002); Cal. Fam. Code § 308.

      I believe there are three jurisdictions in which common-law marriage and same-sex marriage overlap: Iowa, New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia. Iowa requires “(1) a present intent and agreement to be married by both parties; (2) continuous cohabitation; and (3) a public declaration that the parties are husband and wife.” Peter Nicolas, Common Law Same-Sex Marriage, 43 Conn. L.Rev. 931 (2011). DC does not require a public declaration. New Hampshire only recognizes common law marriage for the purposes of probate and inheritance. It won’t consider the couple married for purposes of divorce, custody, etc.

      So that leaves Iowa and DC in this case. If they didn’t publicly present themselves as husband and wife (e.g. refer to themselves as married and otherwise hold themselves out as a married couple), then that leaves only DC. Even then it’s still theoretical, since as far as I know there has yet to be a case of a recognized common law same-sex marriage in any jurisdiction.

      • James Pollock

        Is it possible that international law might be applied? If I recall, Jonny spent considerable time outside the U.S., and Hadji was suggested to be of non-U.S. origin. (Note: I haven’t seen JQ since it originally aired 35+ years ago, so these memories are not reliable.)

    • As I recall, the Quest Compound was in Florida. In the series “continuation,” The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest, they’d moved to Bangor, Maine.

      • I think the Harvey Birdman version follows the original continuity. In that case, a common law marriage would be right out, since Florida bans same sex marriage at the state constitutional level and section 2 of the Defense of Marriage Act allows states not to recognize a same sex marriage that would be valid in another state. Thus, even if Quest and Bannon lived in, say, Iowa long enough to form a common law marriage, that marriage probably wouldn’t be recognized in Florida.

  3. Of course, “punching it” would have only made things worse for Shaggy and Scooby. Before, they only had the driving erratically charge to worry about. Now they’ve got evading/eluding law enforcement as well, which is often a more serious offense.

  4. There’s also a Harvey Birdman video game.

  5. Three questions:
    Would Johnny & Hadji have a shot at gaining emancipated minor status?
    If declared emancipated minors, could they give up that status at a later date, yet before they turn 18?
    As emancipated minors, could they be adopted or awarded gaurneship by Race?

    • Chakat Firepaw

      (Walks over to D Crumley.)
      (Takes off hat.)
      (Snaps hat back open.)
      (Walks away, replacing hat.)

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