A lawsuit recently filed in Detroit, Michigan, alleges that a judge and two lawyers conspired to loot the estate of civil-rights icon and Alabama native Rosa Parks.
We reported last week that the case is likely to run afoul of a legal doctrine called "judicial immunity," which protects judges from almost all lawsuits for misconduct in their official capacity. We expressed dismay at that possibility and noted that judicial immunity contributes to much of the corruption that wracks our courts, giving judges a free pass to rule unlawfully.
It turns out that we might have spoken (and written) too soon. The key word in the previous paragraph is "almost," and it means judicial immunity is not absolute. Stephen G. Cohen, the attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Rosa Parks estate, says his case should be able to get over the immunity hurdle.
The two attorney defendants in the Parks lawsuit, probate lawyers John Chase Jr. and Melvin Jefferson Jr., certainly appear to be vulnerable. But Cohen says even Judge Freddie Burton Jr. might have to answer for his actions.
Here is what Cohen said in an e-mail to Legal Schnauzer:
There is a very important immunity exception at play here--a judge is not immune from liability when he acts in the absence of jurisdiction. This rarely happens, but two factors in my case make the exception directly applicable. First, probate courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. Judge Burton confiscated property belonging to my client, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, which was never part of the estate (or even claimed to be part of the estate). This was done without jurisdiction. In addition, Burton repeatedly ruled on matters sua sponte and without notice or pleadings of any kind. For instance, he issued a judgment in the amount of $120,000.00 against my client on a purely oral request. A probate court can only acquire jurisdiction over a matter where there is a written pleading which states an action falling within the court's limited jurisdiction. No pleading, no jurisdiction.
Cohen must have a powerful sense of right and wrong, extraordinary fortitude, an unassailable financial position--or a combination of all three. I can't imagine an Alabama lawyer filing such a lawsuit against fellow members of the legal tribe, including a judge. My impression is that a lawyer who filed such a case here would find his practice eventually ruined by retaliatory actions from all directions, especially from the Alabama State Bar.
Given the repercussions I've experienced for standing up to judicial corruption in Alabama, you can bet I will be pulling big time for Mr. Cohen and his clients. Given that my wife also has been targeted by legal thugs . . . well, we both would be delighted to see a judge unmasked.
The Parks lawsuit is inherently intriguing, as it involves the estate of a major figure in 20th century history. But it becomes even more significant if Cohen's arguments win the day in court.
American citizens almost never see a judge held accountable for misconduct on the bench. But if Cohen's factual and legal contentions hold up, the Rosa Parks estate case might provide a rare glimpse into the dark hearts that beat beneath the robes of too many judges.
Rosa Parks' quest for justice, it seems, is never ending. She's still fighting for it, even in death.