Last week's Alabama tempest over a state-court seat in Jefferson County appeared to be about women of various colors. But evidence strongly suggests it was driven, behind the scenes, by men of one color--white.
These men and their followers, who come from both sides of the political fence, are driven largely by one desire--to strengthen their grip on political and judicial power. For years, they've been known in Alabama as "Big Mules." The Democratic Party committee that last Thursday chose Elisabeth French as its nominee for a Jefferson County judgeship in essence was telling today's "New Mules" to stick it. And in our view, that's a good thing.
We also think it's a good thing to "out" some of the New Mules who probably played a role in the effort to oust Kenya Lavender Marshall, who had won the Democratic primary, and force in Nicole Gordon Still, the runnerup.
One of these New Mules, we suspect, is prominent Birmingham attorney Bruce L. Gordon. His name has not been mentioned in mainstream-press coverage of last week's drama. But our research indicates he probably was a key character in the chain of events that led to Elisabeth French's selection.
News reports on the story have focused on race, largely because Marshall and French are black, and Still is white. Roughly three weeks after Marshall handily defeated Still in the Democratic run-off, the Alabama State Bar announced that it was temporarily suspending Marshall's license over allegations that she had misappropriated $30,000 in client funds.
That seemed to open the door for Still to become the nominee, and with no Republican challenger, it appeared she would hold onto the seat she had filled since being appointed by GOP Governor Bob Riley in June 2009. The Alabama Democratic Executive Committee (ADEC), as expected, removed Marshall as the nominee. But it threw a curveball by choosing to bypass Still and pick French instead. French had not run for the position, but state bylaws do not limit who can be considered when a nomination is vacated.
Our guess is that members of the ADEC smelled a rat from the curious timing of the State Bar's investigation of Marshall. And they probably thought the foul odor came from the Bob Riley camp, which undoubtedly wanted to see its nominee get the job. But the ADEC essentially flipped Riley a bird by bypassing Still and picking French instead.
Did that sit well with the "New Mules"? Not exactly. You can get a feel for their outrage by reading Sunday's column from John Archibald of The Birmingham News, their official mouthpiece. Consider this nugget from Archibald, accusing black Democratic Party official Joe Reed of engineering the rejection of Still:
Go ahead, Joe Reed. Just kick Martin Luther King's legacy right in the teeth.
Go on. Remind us why Alabama's Democratic Party has less to fear from Republicans than from, say, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
This isn't politics. This is criminal enterprise.
Archibald is so mad you can almost hear him slobbering. He's so mad his column is even more incoherent than usual. Archibald wouldn't know a legitimate RICO case if one bit him on his white, doughy ass. But he's referring to the ADEC's actions the other day in criminal terms?
Hey John, if you want to see some real RICO activity, why don't you check into Bob and Rob Riley's activities over the past eight years or so? Oh wait, that would involve real journalism, and you can't handle that.
Which brings us back to Bruce L. Gordon. Who is this man? Well, he is Nicole Gordon Still's father. And as we reported on Thursday, he has connections to Rob Riley, the governor's son. That probably explains why Bob Riley appointed Still in the first place.
Here is an important lesson for progressives in Alabama--and elsewhere. Nicole Gordon Still has made much of her strong Democratic leanings, and we suspect her father leans the same way. So why would they jump in bed with Bob and Rob Riley? Anyone with three brain cells and an Internet connection can find voluminous information that indicates Bob Riley is a hopelessly corrupt governor, and his son has serious ethical issues, too. We've written about many of those issues on this blog and have public documents to back up our reporting.
The Gordons are not the only ones who seem comfortable bedding down with a GOP family that has highly questionable ethics. We've written extensively about self-styled civil rights "hero" Doug Jones and his alliance with Rob Riley. Jere Beasley and his prominent plaintiff's law firm in Montgomery make no secret of the fact they have bedded down with Rob Riley. You can read all about it on the Beasley Allen Web site.
It appears, in some cases, that progressive principles go out the window when power and money can be grabbed by cozying up to sleazy Republicans.
Bruce Gordon knows a thing or two about cozying up to Republicans. Did Gordon defend Alabama Pain Consultants, a company that is affiliated with Rob Riley and has been tied to Medicare fraud, in order to help get his daughter appointed to a judgeship? That certainly seems to be a reasonable question to ask.
Gordon used to be with a Birmingham law firm that loves to tout its Democratic values. In fact, he was the chief partner when it was called Gordon Silberman Wiggins and Childs. Gordon left to found a new firm in 2003, and his old outfit changed its name. Wiggins Childs Quinn and Pantazis remains perhaps the best-known employment firm in Alabama. According to its Web site, here is the WCQP vision:
From its formation, the firm has risen to prominence in pursuing “ground breaking” legal issues in individual and class action suits leading the way in shaping new laws protecting and benefiting people who have been victims.
Is WCQP really interested in protecting victims? Well, I have some personal insight on that question. I am a client in one matter, and I've discussed other matters with at least three members of the firm. From where I sit, this avowedly Democratic law firm has a decidedly mixed record.
To put it bluntly, Wiggins Childs Quinn & Pantazis hasn't done a damn thing for me yet. And I've seen evidence that the firm is willing to sell victims down the river if a certain New Mule wants them to. Is Bruce Gordon, because of his ties to the Rileys, the kind of New Mule who might influence decisions at his old firm? I would not be surprised.
Because of my interactions with WCQP, I've conducted a fair amount of research on the firm's work. And I wonder how much good they really do for victims. Certainly the firm has had its share of victories. But I've seen it bring a number of weak cases that probably never should have been filed--and resulted in dismissals.
Most alarming is WCQP's handling of perhaps the most famous employment case in Alabama history. A review of court documents indicates the law firm made some major strategic blunders in the case, costing a very deserving and well-known client much needed justice.
We will be writing more about this WCQP case. And I will be writing more about my personal experience with a firm that supposedly is concerned about victims of discrimination and civil-rights violations.
From where I sit at the moment, it appears WCQP doesn't want to wrinkle the undies of the New Mule crowd. And I wonder if that is partly because of Bruce Gordon's lingering influence.
As for Elisabeth French, I see plenty of reasons to think she will be an excellent judge. I've seen numerous comments on Web forums stating that French was chosen only because of her skin color and that she is not as qualified as Still. The facts, however, do not back that up. French and Still both started practicing law in 1997, so their experience levels are identical. Both have worked for major firms. Still has served as a judge for about one year, but that's probably only because her father's influence helped her land Bob Riley's appointment. French comes from a family that seems to care deeply about justice. Her husband, Courtney French, is a partner in the Birmingham firm of Fuston Petway & French.
Courtney French also is president of the Alabama Association for Justice (ALAJ), which says its mission "is to make sure any person who is injured by the misconduct and negligence of others can get justice in the courtroom, even when taking on the most powerful interests . . . "
If ALAJ is serious about that mission, we need more organizations like it.
Can Elisabeth French help restore a sense of justice in Alabama courtrooms? It might be a step in the right direction. And I think that's what the committee that selected her is looking for.
My sense is that Alabama progressives are tired of Democrats, especially of the white and privileged variety, who try to straddle both sides of the political fence. Bruce Gordon and his daughter have tried to do that. I suspect that's why they both got shot down last week.