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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Domestic-Relations Court: Another Alabama Cesspool

Reports about corruption in any court are troubling. But possible misconduct in domestic-relations court is particularly alarming.

Based on conversations I've had with friends and acquaintances, it sounds like going through a divorce can be one of life's most painful experiences. When you throw children into the mix, the stakes--and emotions--can become very high.

Since starting this blog in June 2007, I've heard from many people who sense they have been wronged in a courtroom. By far, the No. 1 area of concern has been domestic-relations court. Reports from a number of citizens here in Birmingham indicate that Jefferson County has a serious problem with its domestic-relations court. It has gotten so bad that even lawyers are suing judges, which is real "man bites dog" stuff.

In the most recent example, an Alabama lawyer is suing a Jefferson County domestic-relations judge, claiming that he committed criminal acts and violated her constitutional right to have her child-custody case heard by an impartial arbiter.

Angela Turner Drees states in a federal lawsuit that Circuit Judge Ralph A. "Sonny" Ferguson has repeatedly made unlawful rulings that resulted in her being denied all contact with her three children. Drees seeks attorneys' fees and costs and asks that Ferguson be removed from her case.

In her complaint, Drees says her case is one of several that involve wrongdoing in Birmingham domestic-relations court. The complaint names seven individuals who can testify about unlawful actions in the court. Two of the citizens, Marc Kerley and Todd Atkinson, are leading a grassroots effort to spotlight what they say is a longstanding pattern of corruption in Jefferson County domestic-relations court. They say Ferguson and other judges consistently rule in favor of attorneys from firms that have supported the judges' campaigns.

Drees' complaint says Ferguson has caused fraudulent orders to be transmitted via the U.S. mails and the Internet, constituting mail and wire fraud under federal law:

Judge Ferguson has allowed numerous lies and other illegal actions and misrepresentations to be entered into evidence including perjured testimony submitted under oath, false evidence, manufactured evidence and evidence designed to intentionally subvert the legal process. Judge Ferguson has further repressed objective evidence from being heard and has misrepresented events and actions relative to the case. Such false evidence was in part manufactured by counsel, knowingly submitted to the Defendant and then entered into the official public record and involving multiple final orders which, despite Plaintff’s attempts to remove or correct same no less than fifteen (15) times, have remained in this case and have been given full force and effect of state law.

Angela and Kile Turner agreed to an uncontested divorce and undisputed custody arrangement in 2005. At the time, Angela Turner had given up a successful law practice to be a stay-at-home mother, caring for the couple's 5-year-old triplets.

About nine months later, Angela Turner asked the court to revise its order, saying her former husband had misrepresented his income by more than $80,000 and that the visitation schedule was not working for the triplets. Kile Turner responded by suing for full custody.

Richard Vincent, of Boyd Fernambucq Vincent & Dunn, represented Kile Turner. Boyd Fernambucq is one of the Birmingham firms that, Kerley and Atkinson say, supported Ferguson's campaign and receives unlawfully favorable treatment in his court.

After a three-year custody battle that generated more than $300,000 in legal fees, Kile Turner was awarded full custody of the triplets.

Angela Turner said the court's final order in the custody case showed no finding of unfitness on her part. The change in custody apparently was driven by allegations that her new husband, Dr. Hajo Drees, had been convicted in Nebraska of domestic violence against his former wife and one of their children.

The lawsuit against Ferguson says those allegations were false, and the judge admitted they were false:


The final Order transferring custody of the Turner children from the agreed upon arrangement between the Turners (Civil Action No. Dr 05-0354,01,02,03 RAF) is based on false material facts submitted by the Father and his counsel of record in an attempt to mislead the tribunal and sway the defendant’s final decision. The undisputed facts show that the Plaintiff’s new husband, Dr. Hajo Drees, has never been found guilty, has never been arrested for, nor has he ever been convicted of any domestic violence against his wife or any of his children and that said statement was manufactured by Defendant Kile Turner and his counsel Richard Vincent to specifically change the outcome of their case. The Plaintiff attempted to correct the said false order no less than fourteen times and finally, the Defendant himself admitted that there was no “quote conviction.” (R.A. Ferguson colloquy at compliance hearing; January 7, 2007)

Dr. Hajo Drees has filed a lawsuit in state court alleging abuse of process, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and outrage for the actions taken in Ferguson's court. That matter is pending in state court.

You can follow the Drees lawsuit at Marc Kerley's Web site, Crisis in the County. The link to the Drees complaint and related documents is here.

Drees probably faces an uphill battle with her lawsuit because of the doctrine of judicial immunity. In short, it's almost impossible to successfully sue a state judge in federal court for deprivation of constitutional rights. If a state judge is acting in his judicial capacity--no matter how corruptly or maliciously his actions are--he probably is protected by judicial immunity.

Most Americans have no idea that a noxious concept such as judicial immunity even exists. And they know even less about the monumental effort judicial groups put up to make sure that state judges could cheat parties with impunity.

A 1984 U.S. Supreme Court case called Pulliam v. Allen put a major gash in the armor of judicial immunity. It allowed for prospective injunctive relief against state judges who clearly were ruling outside the law and violating rights to due process and equal protection. It even said that wayward judges could wind up paying the winning parties' attorney fees and costs. The late Harry Blackmun probably was best known as the author of Roe v. Wade, but he also was the author of Pulliam.

How much did Blackmun's fellow "jurists" hate Pulliam? You can get an idea by clicking here. The Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1996 (FCIA) essentially overruled Pulliam and gave state judges a virtual license to cheat.

Most Americans have no idea what they lost with passage of the FCIA. It means that a corrupt state judge can violate your constitutional rights--and if your state appellate courts are corrupt (as they are in Alabama) and let him get away with it--you probably have no recourse. FCIA is almost certainly the single biggest reason so many state courts are riddled with corruption.

We will be writing much more in future posts about FCIA, Pulliam, and the desperate need for a check on unfettered judicial immunity. But for now, let's just say that it will take some terrific lawyering--and probably quite a bit of luck--for Angela Turner Drees to get very far with her lawsuit. And that's too bad because her family clearly has been traumatized--financially, psychically, and emotionally--in Jefferson County Domestic Relations Court. And she raises issues that should be important for all Alabamians--whether they ever personally wind up in domestic-relations court or not.

As we have noted here at Legal Schnauzer, lawyers tend to deny or cover up judicial wrongdoing. But Angela Turner Drees appears to be cut from a different sort of cloth. Her lawsuit is a rare example of an attorney pointing a finger at a judge who appears to be acting unlawfully. And hers is not the only example where a Birmingham-area lawyer has essentially said, "I've had it up to here with the sleaze in Jefferson County domestic-relations court, and I'm going to do something about it."

We will be reporting on another such lawsuit. And we will tell you about the experiences of people like Marc Kerley and Todd Atkinson.

When it's all pulled together, the story of Jefferson County domestic-relations court sounds like something out of a John Grisham novel. It includes a crude skit that apparently was designed by local lawyers to shift cases from one judge to another--the new judge being one who was expected to give them favorable treatment. It includes a mysterious hunting club, where judges and divorce lawyers allegedly gather to make all manner of unsavory deals. It even includes an outrageous tale of what amounts to court-sanctioned child abuse.

It's vile, ugly--and important--stuff. And you will be reading about it here at Legal Schnauzer.

15 comments:

Lawbabe said...

Get your facts straight. For starters, divorces are heard in the Circuit Court, Domestic Relations Division, not the Family Court.

Secondly, custody awards do not require a finding of "unfitness" on the part of either parent. Read your case law.

In Alabama we elect judges. If enough people think a judge is corrupt, the remedy is to elect someone else. Unfortunately, in contested domestic relations matters there is usually at least one unhappy party who feels the court was not "fair." Even if it's a lawyer, maybe especially if it's a lawyer.

legalschnauzer said...

Thanks for the correction regarding where divorces are heard.

Regarding the unfitness requirement in custody awards, I am stating Ms. Drees' position in her complaint--nothing more, nothing less. If she is incorrect about that, it should show up in court records, and we will report that.

I agree that electing a different judge is one solution to any instance of judicial corruption. My understanding is that Jeffco voters, in fact, did elect one new judge to replace a judge that a number of advocates contend acted in unlawful ways.

These advocates say, if I understand correctly, that a group of local lawyers proceeded to produce the skit I referenced. This was an apparent effort to get this new judge removed from their cases.

I would submit that a better solution would be to have a check on unfettered judicial immunity. Many people in the legal community, I understand, feel electing judges is a bad idea, particularly in partisan elections. I tend to agree with those folks. The whole notion of judges taking campaign contributions is abhorrent, in my view.

Anonymous said...

Well, you are completely wrong about your facts on this one. Read the pleadings Legal Schnauzer. Did you know that Angela Drees was also sentenced to 38 days in jail when she lost custody? Did you know that her current husband has kidnapped his own children to another country and refuses to allow their mother to have any contact with them? Angela Drees is the one who is in the wrong here. Her constant harrassment and abuse of these poor children, her ex husband, all of the lawyers involved and the Judge will end soon enough. Mark my words that at some point soon not only will see be without her chidlren, but she will also lose her law license and will likely be spending time in jail. There simply isn't a lower form of life than a woman who does these types of things to her children. They are better off without her until she checks into a mental health facility and starts accepting blame for her own actions and takes medication for her mental illness.

Anonymous said...

You fail to acknowledge that the federal court case was dismissed. You also fail to recognize that the hajo drees case has been dismissed.

RealityCheck said...

LS,

Sometimes fully researching the facts of your case would make your opinions on this blog carry a lot more weight... luckily, a brief run-through of your postings provides strong evidence that the items posted here are nothing more than one man's ill-informed positions on a variety of topics the general public cares absolutely nothing about. Posting this type of comment about a domestic relations matter that has been going on for years, which you know absolutely NOTHING about, only makes you look like a fool. Nevermind that there are children involved. A closer look at Ms. Drees and her unfounded allegations would reveal her insanity. She continues to make slanderous allegations at nearly every Judge she appears before, simply because they see through her fallacies and rule against her. That type of behavior isn't justice, it's ludicrous. She should've lost her bar license years ago, which would've prevented her from filing these types of ridiculous and frivolous matters that waste public funds and everyone's time.

Your facts below regarding the "skit" that occurred are also incorrect, and I would suggest to you that you refrain from making those types of allegations against the law firm where the President of the Bar currently practices.

Seriously, do you spend all day long dreaming up conspiracy theories about how everyone in government is corrupt? Maybe you should find a new hobby.

Anonymous said...

LS said: The whole notion of judges taking campaign contributions is abhorrent, in my view.

retirement portfolios are the problem and this is how campaign contributions are actually played out.

when rove took control, taser international sold tasers to police globally.

what a cash cow that has turned out to be both in the product and liability - lots of taser cases around the globe, too.

the system is corrupt, every part of it and it is called america.

medical is mostly poisons. food is mostly poisons.

chemical companies rule.

there are good lawyers and there are great ones too. there are great judges and then there are rotten no goods, as we all know.

hope doth spring eternal since human beings walked upright.

bitterness is a hard pill to swallow over and over again LS.

get to work and study for your law degree - then, get into the courts and do something significant, you already have the number one skill: English.

america needs you in the Legal System LS (get it)

Anonymous said...

What a stir you have caused LS.

I find those who are "protesting" ... do as Shakespeare said: "protest too much."

A woman who is accused of being mentally ill, has a license to practice with the BAR, and gee it appears since she violates the golden rule of those who are "ritualistic battlers" --- she sues the judges and her other "colleagues" ---

There are more than one who are truly PO'd at you for bringing this to light, wow, even mention the President of the BAR.

You must be very, very carefully LS and I mean it.

Do not pull the whiskers of the tiger too hard. Get your law degree even should you not practice. The 'credential' is a powerful tool and with your blog and a license NOT plugged into the 'bar' is the important choice.

From now on, it is true about reading the whole case. I frankly read every letter and word of every transcript, especially what the judges say.

I would not, should I be you, put anything out that has not been fact checked by reading all the transcripts of all the case/s, word for word, item for item and fact for fact - personally.

You be careful! Mrs. Schnauzer needs you to not pull the tiger's whiskers too hard!!

Do a thorough background check of opposing views in this case and then come back at the naysayers!

GOOD LUCK and again BE CAREFUL

Anonymous said...

Has Alabama considered seceding from the union?

Please do.

Anonymous said...

LS, Be cautious of your involvement with this group. Drees and her gang are not martyrs, they are trouble makers and fear mongers with their own interests at heart. She has sacrificed her own children in her fury. Eventually, they will turn on you too.

Concerned Citizen said...

Concerned Citizen said

As a concerned citizen of Birmingham I have taken the time to look at the court files on the three people that you have mentioned in your article as I have been seeing newspaper articles and hearing about websites written on these matters.

As an experienced journalist for 11years I would expect tht you would investigate your articles with a bit more expertise then what you have done.Please do not get offended and I am not trying to belittle you or your knowledge in any way, as you are only reporting on the information you were given.

First, I would advise you to look at the whole Domestic Court file (the divorce file) and not just Ms. Drees' complaint, that was filed in the Federal Court, as you will find that her position is a bit more erratic then what she just states in her complaint-not that I think her complaint is all that plain. As you are aware there are always two sides to every story and you might want to investigate the other side as well. Mr. and Mrs. Turner were divorced by Judge Ferguson, they had reached an agreement between them. Later pleadings were filed and Judge Ferguson tried the case and gave custody to Mr. Turner. Mrs. Drees then filed an appeal to the Court of Civil Appeals. The Court of Civil Appeals ruled on Mrs. Drees' appeal on September 5, 2008 with "Affirmed.No Opinion." They listed some cases, meaning to me, that the Court of Civil Appeals has agreed with the trial court's order and cited several cases upon which they based their opinion.

Second,as to the skit that was performed by the "alleged attorneys" that just wanted their cases removed from the new judge is a complete misstatement of fact. If you were to see the skit yourself you would recognize that yours and many others understanding of the skit is just like the saying "that all things are not what they seem"…well that is the case with the skit. Having been fortunate enough to have seen the skit it is not all what it seems. It has been given much more credit and caused much more controversy then what it actually deserves.
(to be continued in the next blog)

Concerned Citizen said...

Concerned Citizen said
(continuation I needed more space)

Third, as to the Todd Atkinson's case a look at his court file would show that his case has been dismissed for not filing a response to the Defendant's Motion to Dismiss within the time period required by the Circuit Judge, from another county, that had to be appointed by the Chief Justice to hear the case. Not being a lawyer, I really could not understand exactly what Mr. Atkinson was complaining about, it seems he kept leaping from one thing to another and the best I could tell he was not even a party to any case heard by Judge Ferguson. Thankfully, I was not called upon to understand him.

Fourth, as to Marc Kerley's case(took me a little while to find this case, it is listed under his full name). Mr. and Mrs. Kerley were divorced by Judge Ferguson. Mr. Kerley filed an appeal with the Alabama Court of Civil Appeal. Mr. Kerley's appeal has just recently been ruled on, June 5, 2009. The paper in the court file from the Court of Civil Appeals said "Affirmed. No Opinion." This is what the Court of Civil Appeals did with Mrs. Drees' appeal. So to me, it seems Judge Ferguson must not be all that wrong in his judgments. Two out of two cases - affirmed.

After looking at the court files and the crisis in the county website, I found that Mr. Kerley and his associates have done a very poor and inaccurate portrayal of their actual court cases. It seems that they live in a fantasy world and not in the reality that you or I live in. As I have heard at least 50 percent of the people in a divorce case are unhappy with the results, these two people just appear to be the 50 percent of the two divorces.

This is just a suggestion on what you should probably investigate for the next article that you may or may not write.

I have read at some point and can't find it now, but something to the effect that Judges are not permitted to talk, write or answer any questions about any of their cases. So, is it really right for you to report on the representation of just one person, without checking their allegations, as a good journalist would or at least I would hope, to attack people that are not allowed to defend themselves?

I have read the comments from the others to your article and believe most would agree with me.

Lawbabe said...

LS, I agree with you, that judges' elections should not be partisan ones. Judicial decisions aren't Republican or Democratic (or Libertarian, or anything other party)--they should be about following the law. But standing for election IS the check on what you refer to as "unfettered" judicial immunity. Don't take that away from us. Judicial immunity serves a purpose. If every unhappy litigant could sue the judge who ruled against her, we'd have a mess.

As for the necessity of campaign contributions, having judges run on their own merit and not on a party platform would help. It won't change the fact that candidates need money to get their names out there. Unless we are ready to accept complete public financing of all elected positions, then politics will just be politics.

Anonymous said...

While I cannot comment as to the facts of this case, I can attest that the Jefferson County Domestic Relations Court and Family Courts have a lot of corruption. I have been involved in an ongoing custody fight for over 5 years. My ex is an attorney and has been given lots of freedoms because of this. Several attorneys involved were also corrupt. This is not a case where my feelings are hurt, etc. He has failed drug tests MULTIPLE TIMES and continues failing them, left children with a friend who molested them - even though he had been told his children were not allowed to be around this person, he has continued to violate court orders and never be held in contempt, yet he was awarded joint custody - with some very strict guidelines, all of which he has failed and he still has yet to be held in contempt. He also has failed to pay child support and lied about his income. He works in the courtroom in front of these judges as his job. He knows them all. The court corruption in Alabama goes far higher than Jefferson County.

wp said...

This is not politically motivated, nor is it politically correct, but I have known both the parents in this trial from the time that they married and gave birth to those triplets. Let me just say, I witness first-hand the struggles that a mother goes through pregnant with triplets. I witnessed the fear in her eyes when Kile would threaten her. I witnessed how the children love their mother. This all comes down to MONEY. Kile didn't want to pay more child support, he is a powerfully connected attorney who won. Simple as that. It is unfathomable to me that a mother, who has don NOTHING wrong can lose custody of her three children. Children she fed, rocked, burped, cried with and cuddled. A disgusting miscarriage of justice has occurred.

ksmith101 said...

I currently I'm searching for a lawyer to reverse a decision.That Judge Ferguson made so wrongly.Yes there is a lot of circumstances in most cases.In my court case it was NOT. I petitioned the court for post majority for my soon to be 19 year old autistic son. My son will never work a full -time job,drive or live independently. We received his decision two weeks for before his 19 birthday.No post majority and no health insurance.This cut him off of health insurance immediately.The father makes four times more annually than I do.I know I'm responsible for all heatlh and dental coverage.If I don't have enough to worry with.I have no problem taking of my child for life,the father though should be just as liable Yes as the judge did say in court he can stay on medicaid for life.If I was to just use medicaid him,it will not provide any dental coverage after next year.We have no doctor family doctor within 30 miles that excepts it.You wonder why medicaid keeps losing funding maybe the laws need to be changed to have parents that have insurance available to provide for them.If someone reading dosen't know a disabled child who was diagnosed before 22 can stay on a parents insurance for life. Thank goodness I was able recently to put my son on his step-dads military insurance.Now you as Americans are paying for health insurance while his father pays nothing.