A federal judge who last week upheld most of Alabama's immigration law benefited from organized crime in the state's domestic-relations courts, according to a lawsuit filed four years ago.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn held that key provisions in the Alabama immigration law are constitutional, making it the strictest such measure in the nation. But a 2007 federal lawsuit alleges that Blackburn was the beneficiary of unconstitutional actions by certain judges and lawyers in an Alabama divorce court. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that a hunting club in central Alabama was the focal point of an organized crime ring that fixed divorce cases in order to benefit Blackburn and other favored parties--and their lawyers.
A specially appointed federal judge from Georgia dismissed the lawsuit on technical grounds in March 2008. But U.S. District Judge B. Avant Edenfield found that a key argument in the lawsuit "obviously was not frivolous." And for the purposes of his ruling, Edenfield states, the court was required to find many of the alleged facts as true.
The lawsuit does not claim that Judge Blackburn was involved in the organized-crime ring or that she knew she was to benefit from its activities. But it does raise at least two thorny questions:
* What did Judge Blackburn know and when did she know it?
* Was Blackburn's ruling on Alabama's immigration law tainted by her own possible connections to organized crime?
This much seems clear: Now that the hunting club lawsuit has been resolved, Judge Blackburn is aware of serious allegations against the legal community in her home state. Under the ethics rules of the bar, Blackburn is required to report such misconduct to the proper tribunal for investigation. Has she fulfilled her ethical duty or has she remained silent in order to protect the lawyers and judges who helped her obtain a favorable divorce ruling?
Based on the silence of the mainstream media on the issue, it appears that Judge Blackburn chose the latter course.
Joseph W. Blackburn, Judge Blackburn's ex husband, filed the hunting-club lawsuit on January 25, 2007, alleging violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and other wrongs. Joe Blackburn hardly is your standard-issue litigant. He is a certified public accountant and professor of taxation at Cumberland School of Law on the campus of Samford University in Birmingham. His teaching and research interests include corporate taxation, basic federal income tax, estate and gift taxation, business planning, accounting for lawyers, and international tax.
Joe Blackburn clearly is not a frivolous guy. He also does not appear to take kindly to being getting hammered in a divorce case, which is exactly what appears to have happened. Did U.S. Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn, when the divorce case commenced, know what was going to happen to her soon-to-be ex husband?
If your tax dollars help fund federal courts--and they almost certainly do, regardless of where you live--that question should be worth pondering.
For now, we will focus on the first lawsuit, but we soon will be writing extensively about the second. It speaks volumes about the ugly culture in Alabama's legal community--and at Cumberland School of Law, where Joe Blackburn has been threatened with loss of his job for bringing the hunting-club allegations to light.
Who were the key players in the RICO enterprise? Joe Blackburn names them in the first lawsuit as former Alabama state-court judge John C. Calhoun and "known attorney defendants" Charles Gorham, George Richard Fernambucq, and L. Stephen Wright.
Fernambucq, of the Birmingham firm Boyd Fernambucq & Dunn, represented Joe Blackburn in the divorce case. Wright, of the Birmingham firm Najjar Denaburg, represented Sharon Blackburn. Calhoun presided over the case. And Gorham, of the Birmingham firm Gorham & Cason, is identified as a key organizer of the hunting club.
Blackburn's lawsuit raises perhaps the dirtiest secret in the legal profession--one that I have personally witnessed over and over. Blackburn alleges that his own lawyer, Fernambucq, worked against him--at the behest of the judge and opposing counsel. This might be shocking stuff to regular citizens, but it's not to me. After 10-plus years of battling legal corruption, Schnauzer Rule No. 1 is this: "Your worst enemy in any legal case could very well be your own lawyer, especially if a corrupt judge is involved." A lawyer's duty to a rogue judge will take precedence over his duty to you every time.
How did the hunting club work against Joe Blackburn? He states in his complaint:
Fernambucq and Wright then failed to disclose to (Blackburn) that they and Calhoun were all part of the RICO conspiracy. . . . This persisted despite plaintiff's urging them to seek Calhoun's recusal since his wife was a federal judge in the Alabama Northern District (which encompassed the Blackburn domestic relations court forum).
How did the hunting club operate behind the scenes to fix divorce cases in Jefferson County, Alabama? From Edenfield's ruling:
So, Blackburn maintains, corrupt judges threw cases and inflated attorney-fee awards to fellow enterprise members, and those who benefited provided substantial assistance and provided cover for such conduct. . . . In other words, judges were "paid" by having Hunting Club lawyers absorb the judges' Hunting Club membership costs--the judges were allowed to hunt gratis as "honorary members." And the benefiting attorneys would then stream some of their ill-gotten (attorney fee awards inflated by the judge) gains back to the judge in the form of campaign contributions to ensure his re-election.
How did this work against Joe Blackburn and other non-favored litigants in divorce court? Writes Edenfield:
The public therefore suffered and continues to suffer from this scheme, Blackburn concludes. To get justice before the "RICO judges," then, one must now hire a "Hunting Club lawyer," and opponents will be subjected to tainted rulings and inflated attorney-fee awards. On top of that, all of the defendants additionally conspired to keep this entire scheme secret.
This all hit home for Joe Blackburn in a bottom-line sort of way--an injury that a tax-law professor was sure to notice. He was awarded joint custody of the couple's minor children and various items of marital property, but he was ordered to pay gross alimony of $285,000 and his wife's attorney fees in the amount of $22,500. Joe Blackburn alleged that he lost $750,000 due to Judge Calhoun's "refusal to consider and divide spouse's accrued deferred federal compensation benefits."
How badly have Joe Blackburn and other non-favored parties been damaged by corruption in Alabama divorce courts? Is the hunting club, reportedly located in Lowndes County, still acting as an organized-crime ring? Is U.S. Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn fully aware of unsavory activities in rural Alabama--and choosing to remain quiet about them? If so, does she have any business ruling on Alabama's immigration law--or any other matter that might come before the federal bench?
In short, is Sharon Blackburn fit to serve as a federal judge?
We will be addressing these questions in future posts. But for now, the public should consider two curious storylines in Joe Blackburn's lawsuit:
* The case was dismissed purely on technical grounds--judicial immunity, statute of limitations, and res judicata. Because of that, Joe Blackburn never was allowed to conduct the discovery that was needed to prove his case. The judge who dismissed the case plainly states that Blackburn's claims are "not fantastical" and notes that Blackburn was given no opportunity to conduct discovery in the case.
* The specially appointed judge seems to go to extraordinary lengths to protect his colleague, Sharon Lovelace Blackburn. The 31-page ruling makes multiple references to the fact that Joe Blackburn was married to a federal judge. But it never mentions her name.
Sharon Blackburn now is known around the country because of her ruling on Alabama's immigration law. Perhaps the public should take note of her connections to a notorious Alabama hunting club--one that smells an awful lot like an organized-crime ring.