Pondering Of A Cathouse Lawyer
By Tom Eck
The state capitol of Nevada in Carson is just thirty miles from Reno, the “Biggest Little City in the World.” But more significantly, it rests only three miles from a gaggle of houses of ill repute. It was in Carson that I began my law practice, not because of the proximity to the houses, but because of its distance in space and culture from smog-ridden Los Angeles, where I was raised and schooled.
Three days into my practice, my law partner approached me.
“Tom, I want you to research whether using credit cards by the Kit Kat Ranch, will in some way violate the Mann Act.”
I was puzzled. “How would accepting credit cards equate to bringing women across state lines for immoral purposes? That’s quite a stretch.”
“Well you know the Feds. They will twist federal laws any way they can to get a conviction. I should know, I was once a prosecutor. Of course, you will have to visit the ranch to check out their operation and card processing procedures.” He winked.
The euphemistically named Kit Kat Ranch was located in Lyon County where prostitution was not illegal, but it was not actually legislated as legal. This provided ample opportunity for the sheriff, the district attorney and the local judge to extract recompense from the establishments under the guise of protection from local politicians who might threaten to close them down as a public nuisance. Payment was in cash and in kind, although I doubt the old judge ever exacted anything but money.
So, I delved into research, poring through case law and law review articles. It was 1970, long before the days when a click of a button on a computer could reveal the answer. After three days I reached a preliminary conclusion. But I still had to meet with the client at her place of business, and check things out.
I was not looking forward to going out to the ranch. Who might see me there? I was married with children, and just beginning my practice. What kind image would this project?
But duty– and a great deal of curiosity– spurred me on.
The ranch was anything but. Located in a canyon below Highway 50, a road leading to the town of Lovelock, it was a series of three double wide mobile homes surrounded by a fenced parking lot with a sign over the entrance reading “Welcome to the Kit Kat Ranch. Men only.” Obviously, Nevada was still the Wild West where men were men, and the sheep were nervous.
Good, I thought, no cars there and mine won’t be seen from the highway.
I approached the main entrance and the door was immediately opened by a smiling portly lady who looked like Aunt Jemima. She directed me into a reception area.
There they were. One dozen of them in a row– pert, perky paradigms of pulchritude. Above each pair, a face, with a well-rehearsed smile and bedroom eyes promising nothing but ecstasy. The girls were surprisingly attractive, all probably in their mid-20s.
In less than thirty seconds, a wizened woman with over-colored red hair and too much makeup approached. She was the stereotypical madam. With her cold green eyes. She looked me up and down, as if inspecting a side of beef. Then she smiled.
“You must be Tom. I am Marie Morrison. Welcome.”
Then, under her breath, she said something to the girls and they scampered away as if my perceived penury was somehow contagious.
“No mon, no fun,” one of them laughed.
I examined the credit card processing operation.
“What do you write on the credit card slip,” I asked.
“Why ‘entertainment’, of course,” she replied.
Then she offered me free samples from her inventory. I declined.
In a week, I provided a written opinion that the use of credit cards did not violate the Mann Act. A year later, true to form, the Feds tried to prosecute another brothel, and my opinion was used as a defense. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with my conclusions.
Marie Morrison was the perfect client. She regularly needed legal help and would pay her bill the next day in cash. Since I didn’t know where it had been, I made my secretary count it.
A few years later she came to me for a divorce. Her husband was claiming the Kit Kat was community property. We went through the normal litigation process and when it was time for depositions, I had a dilemma. Typically, I would have lunch with my client at the break and we would discuss the morning and prepare for the afternoon. Still worried about my image in the small town of Carson City, I was not looking forward to having lunch with a known madam. But then, I thought, anyone who knew her would have to be a client, and shouldn’t be pointing fingers. Still, I was uneasy.
But Marie solved the problem.
“Tom, do you mind if I don’t have lunch with you. Our local furniture store is having a sale on mattresses and you won’t believe how fast they wear out in the mirror room.”
I hoped she didn’t notice my look of relief.
The case ended with Marie winning, but her husband appealed. Fortunately, his lawyer made some procedural errors, and I managed to get the appeal dismissed. Marie was elated, because now the case would not be printed in the Nevada Reports for all to see. “My grandkids live in San Francisco and they don’t know what I do. You have done such a great job, you can come out to the ranch anytime and ‘relax.’”
I never took her up on the offer, but at times was tempted.
Marie was honest about her business, but not apologetic. She was doing nothing illegal, and no one coerced the girls to work for her. They were in it for the money and were making more than three times my monthly salary back then.
And she was not without a sense of humor, from the name “Kit Kat Ranch,” to the sign emblazoned on the portal over the exit.
It simply read, “Thanks for coming.”