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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Facing A Corrupt Judge: Been There, Done That

A West Virginia case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court asks this fundamental question: Is a person's right to due process violated when he appears in court before a judge who has benefitted from the financial backing of the opposing party?

Put more bluntly, do we have a right to expect that the judge handling our case isn't "bought and paid for" by the other side?

You might think the US of A is beyond such questions in 2009. But you would be wrong. Hugh Caperton, owner of Harman Mining in West Virginia, knows it. And I know it, too.

Our cases involved different issues and vastly different sums of money, but Caperton and I have one thing in common: We've both heard tales of interesting trips judges take on their vacations.

My personal experiences with what amount to "kept judges" in Alabama led me to start this blog. Hugh Caperton's experiences with kept judges in West Virginia led him to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.

My case involved several thousand dollars, and Caperton's involved tens of millions of dollars. But I've walked in Caperton's shoes. And we both have learned a hard fact about American life: Corrupt judges violate due-process rights all the time. Oral arguments in Caperton v. Massey indicate that Antonin Scalia and his conservative brethren on the U.S. Supreme Court want to keep it that way.

The Washington Post and other mainstream press outlets have done a solid job of reporting the issues Hugh Caperton faced. My case has received considerably less press attention, and the careful reader might ask, "Hey Schnauzer, how did you get screwed?"

Here is one of many posts I've written that lay out the details.

What about those interesting vacations that judges take? In West Virginia, the state supreme court overturned a $50-million verdict in favor of Caperton and Harman Mining. Not long after that, pictures surfaced of one of the justices vacationing in the French Riviera with the CEO of . . . Massey Coal. Curiously, the justice had voted against Harman and for Massey. Gee, can't imagine why he would do that.

Sources tell Legal Schnauzer that similar antics take place in Shelby County, Alabama, where my case originated before circuit judges J. Michael Joiner and G. Dan Reeves. Our sources say certain "local counsel" in Shelby County take the judges on excursions to Alaska--and the attorneys who foot the bill for these ventures in the wild tend to do quite well before the judges.

Imagine that!

In fact, one attorney based in Jefferson County (where Birmingham is located) said he had an estate-related case coming up in Shelby County against one of the lawyers who paid for the Alaska trip. "They brought a baseless case against my clients, but I don't know how I'm going to win it because the other lawyer takes the judges to Alaska."

As for the case in West Virginia, the attorney for Massey Coal used oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court to fill the air with high-minded rhetoric. He said our system is built on the "presumption" that judges are impartial.

But there is a huge gap between that presumption and real life in America's courtrooms.

Here's how Caperton's attorney, Theodore Olson, put it:

"The thing I ask people is: 'If you had an important case coming up and your opponent gave $3 million to elect the judge who was going to decide it, would you think that was fair?'" Olson said. "I haven't met a person yet who thinks that's fair."

Olson isn't likely to ever meet anyone who thinks that is fair. But don't be surprised if our current Supreme Court leaves such a flawed system in place.

5 comments:

Robby Scott Hill said...

Some judges in other areas of Alabama are even cheaper dates. A weekend at one of the condos in Gulf Shores or Orange Beach or just a steak dinner at the restaurant on top of The RSA Tower in Montgomery will suffice.

legalschnauzer said...

Rob:
Your comment made me laugh out loud. It's not a funny subject, but the notion of a judge being a "cheap date" is a scream. I wonder if some can be had for a trip to Sonic, particularly if you throw in the hot fudge cake brownie for dessert. If I were a corrupt judge, that's about all it would take to "bag" me. Have you tried that hot fudge cake brownie at Sonice. Awesome!

Anonymous said...

I gotta say, it's just down right amusing that Ted Olson has come to be concerned about anything being fair.

Geez, Roger. Now I've gotta go to Sonic...in the rain.

Anonymous said...

I understand what you are alleging about Judges "being on the take". However, it's very important to keep in mind that most Judges and established lawyers are friends. In fact, many of the Judges used to be lawyers themselves. It doesn't take a trip to Alaska to cause one friend (Judge) to be a bit biased in favor of the other (lawyer). It's human nature and unfortunately, Judges aren't immune to it. It drives new lawyers and their clients mad because they aren't friends with the Judge - yet. As soon as they are, they stop bitching and join the club. The moral of this story is to always hire the lawyer who knows the Judge. If you can't afford them or otherwise get them on your case, hopefully you have an air-tight case - and good luck.

Just today, Judge Dan Reeves in Shelby County continued court through lunch, inconveniencing and interfering with the business of lawyers, clients, police, staff, etc, just so he could leave early this afternoon. To me, that's another example of abuse of power.

We've all heard the saying "life isn't always fair". Unfortunately, it applies to every aspect of life, including Judges and lawyers.

legalschnauzer said...

Anon:

Thanks for your insights, particularly on Judge Reeves. I've seen his act in person many times, and it's not pretty.

I've heard from several sources that his family somehow profits from the jail, drug court etc. down there. Not sure on the details, but perhaps you've heard about that kind of thing.