What do Marvin Hagler, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson have in common? All have lost to Jimmy Binns. Not in the ring, but in the courtroom. In this arena, Binns is a champion.
An elegantly pinstriped, white-maned trial lawyer who drives a burgundy Jaguar, Binns has had a memorable 42-year career. A summary on his Web site of his legal experience runs a tight 13 pages. He is licensed to practice in 20 states and in Puerto Rico. He is admitted to all 11 Circuit Courts of Appeals. He has been lead or co-lead counsel in hundreds of antitrust, securities fraud, medical and legal malpractice, and white-collar criminal cases. He has represented several world champion boxers. He has defended 10 men charged with first-degree murder. It’s been quite a ride.
“I won one case where the prosecution had the gun, the bullets from the gun, and they had a confession,” he says in his tastefully appointed office in Blue Bell. “And I won. ‘Young man,’ the judge told my client, ‘you’re the luckiest man in the world.’”
Lucky he found Jimmy Binns.
The son of a banker and a homemaker, Binns and his two siblings grew up in a big stone house in the northeast section of Philadelphia. He was “a horrific student in high school,” he says, without ambition or direction who one day underwent what he calls “a metabolic change. It dawned on me that maybe I should read some textbooks. I was tired of being less than I thought I could be,” he says.
Binns attended LaSalle College (now University), from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1961. Armed with a degree in accounting, he landed a job with Arthur Young and Company, but he “didn’t feel old enough to go to work at the ripe old age of 21.” He took a law school aptitude test and won a scholarship to Villanova School of Law.
“I thought I’d be a tax attorney,” he says. “But after one month, I decided that was not my niche. I transferred to the litigation department.” There he found his future.
“When you’re in a jury trial,” he explains, “it’s as hands-on as you can get, extricating somebody — your client — from an unbelievably difficult situation. This seemed so much more satisfying than corporate law.” Trial work also appealed to the pugilistic side of his nature.
Binns was halfway through college when he became interested in boxing. A friend’s uncle, Franny Venuti, managed the Passyunk Gym in South Philly. Intrigued, Binns visited the gym one Saturday. It was on the third floor of a drab building on the corner of Passyunk and Moore. There he found a whole new world, one where the vernacular of the street held sway. It quickly became an outlet for his energies and his dreams.
Binns asked Venuti to teach him to box. Trekking down to the gym every Saturday, the fledgling fighter took instruction — and his lumps — with singular purpose. Soon he was at the gym just about every day, doing his schoolwork on buses and trains. A gym veteran known as Old Man Bates showed him how to jab; Binns practiced it for hours in front of a mirror.
It was a visceral experience: the challenge of the ring, the cast of characters that populated the place. He had hundreds of sparring matches in the gym, and even had a few amateur bouts as a solid, 150-pound welterweight. He loved it.
But his enthusiasm waned a couple of years later after reading Budd Schulberg’s 1947 classic The Harder They Fall, which depicted professional boxing at the time as corrupt (Shulberg later wrote On the Waterfront and became one of Binns’ buddies). He decided to quit fighting, but he continued to train to stay trim and toned, and attended bouts whenever he could.
After graduating with honors from Villanova, he joined LaBrum & Doak. There he came up with a novel strategy for gaining trial experience: He would go around to his fellow attorneys and ask them if he could take their least favorite case, which almost always meant a negotiation or litigation. A few years later, at age 26, he started his own practice and did the same thing to get cases, only this time he would call on lawyers at other firms. Most were happy to oblige as they usually didn’t want to litigate, and they would still get to split the fees with the eager upstart. Litigation, Jimmy says, is “exactly like boxing. You’ve got to know when to come on, when to retreat, when to end it. You’ve got to learn to pace yourself.”
His practice grew, and his love of boxing became a central core of his business. He has negotiated multimillion-dollar contracts for such boxers as Michael Spinks and Jermaine Taylor, current middleweight champion. He has closed deals on behalf of hotels and casinos that host events. And he has represented the World Boxing Association (WBA), the oldest sanctioning body in the world, for more than a quarter of a century. The WBA “used to get sued a lot,” he says. He has been in its legal corner during 29 cases, facing off against some of the fiercest figures in the sport — Hagler, Don King and Iron Mike among them.
“Back around 1990, Mike Tyson sued the WBA — and me,” he says. “He claimed I rigged a vote of the WBA Executive Committee to prevent him from fighting Buster Douglas, who then held the title. I won the case on a summary judgment, but Buster lost his fight, which is how Evander Holyfield won the heavyweight championship.”
Professional boxing has become “big business,” Binns points out, because of the proliferation of weight categories that were “invented” to serve HBO’s interest in broadcasting several divisions of fights. This has created plenty of work for Binns, who loves the intricacies of a boxing deal as much as the action in the ring.
He realizes not everyone is comfortable with the violence of boxing, but he is quick to defend it as more than mindless brawling. “Boxing may be philosophically immoral, but it also is a science,” he says. “The more intelligent boxers are the best boxers.”
Boxing has brought him many memorable opportunities. He has served as Pennsylvania’s Boxing Commissioner. He has testified before Congress, which he did in 2000 during hearings that resulted in the passage of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, which offers protections against exploitation for fighters. He’s even done a bit of acting, thanks to his friendship with a certain Italian Stallion.
“Sly asked me, ‘If I do another [Rocky] movie, will you act in it?’ I said sure. So one day — it was in late ’89 or early ’90 — I get a call from a [woman at] a casting company. ‘Mr. Stallone gave us your name,’ she told me.” That’s how Binns got to play Rocky’s lawyer in Rocky V. And this was more than a cameo: He got a big scene where he delivers the news to the champ that his financial manager squandered away all his money and he’s now broke (go to www.jamesbinns.com/cinema.htm to watch the scene).
And yes, in the upcoming Rocky Balboa, Binns returns, this time as state boxing commissioner. “It was great,” he says of the shoot in Philly in January. “I ad-libbed under Sly’s direction in the pivotal scene in the movie. He wanted it to be authentic. He wanted it to be how Jimmy Binns would do it.” In other words, with intensity, with confidence, with style.
Another knockout performance.
‘The Best Idea I’ve Had in My Life’
It was sometime in 2000 when Jimmy Binns was drinking a cappuccino at 13th and Locust with a Philadelphia police sergeant named Mike Walton, who asked him, “Did you know Danny Faulkner died right over there?” He was referring to a 25-year-old police officer who was shot and killed on December 9, 1981.
This startled the normally unflappable Binns. “It occurred to me that so many cops had died and nobody knew anything about them,” he told the Philadelphia Daily News. “So I decided I wanted a plaque right in the pavement where each cop died in the line of duty for as far back as we could go.”
Working with the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Binns is making good on what has become a consuming venture: to honor and acknowledge all 269 Philadelphia police officers killed in the line of duty going back to 1828 – and three others, Francis “Gene” Sievers and James Kline, who were killed in the Vietnam War, and Gennaro Pellegrini Jr., who was killed in Iraq. “Police run to a crime while we run away from it,” he says. “This is the best idea I’ve had in my life.”
His brainstorm has inspired many to action. Bobby Eddis, president of the FOP, ensures that the backgrounds of the officers and the details surrounding their deaths are made known. Chief Inspector Jimmy Tiano designates the sites where the plaques are placed. Mikey Fera, president of Local 592 of the Cement Masons Union, sets the bronze plaques in finished concrete. The Daily News recounts the stories of the fallen on the dates of their occurrence.
Thus far, 41 plaques, which cost about $1,100 each, have been dedicated in Philadelphia — “and we got sponsors for all of them,” Binns says. He’s also procured eight plaques in Atlantic City and two in neighboring Margate.
His newest venture involves replacing all 65 Harley-Davidson Road King motorcycles for the Philadelphia Police Department’s Highway Patrol. Each new set of wheels costs $15,565, he says, and he’s had no shortage of donors. The first guy he called was philanthropist Kal Rudman. No, I won’t pay for one, Rudman said. I’ll buy three. And just like that the nonprofit foundation Binns set up, CopWheels Inc., was revved up and ready to roll.