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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Once You Encounter a Corrupt Judge, You Never Forget Him

When you have witnessed the handiwork of a corrupt judge, how does it affect your life?

In a broad sense, it undermines your confidence in our democracy. In a "micro" sense, it affects you in numerous ways. For example, I don't read the newspaper the way I used to.

Two of the biggest stories in Alabama at the moment are the civil trial of former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy and the controversy over electronic bingo. Both stories involve judges that I know, from firsthand experience, are corrupt.

Take the Scrushy story. Jefferson County Circuit Judge Allwin Horn is handling that matter, and in a bench trial, entered a judgment of $2.87 billion against the HealthSouth founder. Since then, the local press has been filled with stories about efforts by plaintiffs' lawyers to track down Scrushy's assets. (Never mind that Scrushy almost certainly doesn't have anything close to $2.87 billion.)

How do I read those stories? Before my own legal experiences, I would have read them the way many citizens probably read them--with an assumption that Scrushy is a scoundrel and deserves to get nailed for all he's worth. But now, I'm not so sure about that.

I'm not sure that Scrushy was "the CEO of the fraud" at HealthSouth, as Horn found. But I do know, from up-close-and-personal experience, that Horn himself is a scoundrel. Horn handled a legal-malpractice claim that I filed, and I saw him repeatedly rule contrary to clear law, effectively letting a member of the legal community (Birmingham attorney Richard Poff) off the hook.

In short, I saw Horn butcher a case that involved a relatively small amount of money. Do I have confidence that he is honestly handling the Scrushy case, which involves huge sums of money? The answer is a resounding no.

Or take the electronic-bingo story. A prominent case in Walker County is being heard by Jefferson County Circuit Judge Robert Vance. In late October, Vance ruled that electronic bingo is not legal in Walker County and ordered bingo halls to shut down immediately. Last week, ruling on a motion to alter that judgment, Vance stood by his original decision.

How did I read those stories? Ten years ago, I probably wouldn't have read them because, while I support efforts to legalize and regulate gambling in Alabama, I generally don't participate in bingo or other games of chance. It's just not my thing. But after years of going through legal hell, I read any story about Judge Robert Vance very closely.

Like Horn, Vance "heard" a legal-malpractice case I had filed, this one against Birmingham attorneys Jesse P. Evans III and Michael B. Odom. And like Horn, Vance repeatedly ruled contrary to clear law, protecting two members of the legal community and one of its major law firms.

Vance did not just screw up my case. By intentionally ruling in an unlawful manner and using the U.S. mails in the process, he almost certainly committed a federal crime--honest-services mail fraud. Horn probably committed the same crime in the Poff case.

Imagine my reaction when I read the following quote from Vance's ruling denying a request to keep bingo halls operating while an appeal is pending:

"This court cannot condone and permit continued criminal activity for any period of time. To do so would essentially mean an abdication of this Court's primary responsibility, undertaken when the undersigned took his oath of office, to uphold and defend the laws of this State."

Isn't that interesting? Vance failed to uphold and defend the laws of Alabama in the legal-malpractice case I had before him--and he didn't seem to have the least bit of problem with that. But he takes his oath with the utmost seriousness in the bingo case.

How does it affect you when you have witnessed judicial corruption? For me, it changes the way I read every story about the courts. I always have this question: Who is the real wrongdoer here--the individual on trial or the judge?

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