|Robert Vance Jr.|
Jefferson County Circuit Judge Robert Vance Jr. is hearing a state case, even though lawyers on one side are from a firm that contributed at least $3,600 to Vance's most recent campaign. The donations, from the Birmingham firm Maynard Cooper & Gale (MCG), exceed the $2,000 threshold set by Alabama law and require Vance's recusal, according to the federal complaint.
Vance has refused to step aside in the underlying state case, styled William B. Cashion and Western Steel Inc. v. Steven Mark Hayden, et al (Case No. CV-2012-209), and issued four favorable rulings to MCG's clients. That prompted a federal lawsuit alleging that Vance acted without jurisdiction and outside his judicial capacity, causing substantial damages to a trust that was formed in Nevada.
Plaintiffs in the federal case, styled William B. Cashion Nevada Spendthrift Trust and Steven Mark Hayden v. Robert S. Vance Jr., 2:13-CV-0286-SLB, seek $25 million in damages. They claim Vance issued a temporary restraining order and other extra-judicial orders that prevented them from nurturing the trust's principal. "The Trust suffered the loss of considerable investment returns and interest," the complaint states. "The Trust also was deprived of assets valued at more than $20,000,000.00." (See the federal complaint at the end of this post.)
Austin Burdick, a Bessemer attorney who represents the trust, says Code of Alabama 12-24-1 et seq, requires Vance's recusal. Burdick filed a Motion for Recusal in the state case on January 9, 2013, but Vance refused to step down. Burdick sought a writ of mandamus forcing Vance to recuse, but the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed the petition without accepting briefs.
That led to the federal lawsuit, and Burdick makes a powerful case that Vance acted outside his official capacity--and violated state law regarding judicial-campaign contributions in the process. From pages 10-11 of the federal complaint:
At a later hearing, Judge Vance also announced that he was not bound by any statutory provision which limits a judge's ability to receive campaign contributions. . . . It is believed he was referring to Ala. Code 1975, Sec. 12-24-2, which limits campaign contributions to not more than $2,000.00 from any law firm to any circuit judge. If this threshold amount is exceeded, then the judge is disqualified from hearing the case. . . . The law itself indicates that disqualification is required because an appearance of impropriety exists when a judge takes substantial campaign contributions from litigants or counsel. And it is the appearance of impropriety that necessitates the judge's recusal.
Public records make it clear that Maynard Cooper & Gale lawyers have provided financial support to Vance's campaigns, and the firm represents William B. Cashion and Western Steel Inc. in the underlying state case. Burdick provides the details:
A review of the records provided to the Alabama Secretary of State indicate that the lawyers at the firm representing Cashion contributed at least $3,600.00 to Judge Vance's most recent campaign while Cashion's case was pending. . . . There may have been other contributions from Maynard through PACs, however, Vance has refused to disclose that information.
Does it sound like Robert Vance Jr. is an impartial arbiter in cases involving the Maynard firm? Consider this from the federal complaint:
At [a] November hearing, Vance . . . disclosed that he had previously been involved in a controversy wherein he received excessive campaign contributions from Maynard.
What kind of excuse does Vance present? It's pretty lame, according to Burdick's complaint:
Judge Vance justified his disregard for the aforementioned statutes by saying that the issue was never addressed by the Alabama Supreme Court when a Petition for Writ of Mandamus was filed in another case. . . .
However, Judge Vance's disregard for law was never vindicated as it was never addressed. . . . Judge Vance has sought to justify his conduct by claiming that the aforementioned statute has never been enforced. However, the law reflects a public policy concern that pursuant to the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics a judge must recuse if there is an appearance of impropriety. Accepting such donations during the case presents the appearance of impropriety. The Canons of Judicial Ethics have been enforced, and regardless of the application of the above-referenced statutes, Vance has an obligation to recuse if there is evidence to show an appearance of impropriety. $3,600.00 in campaign contributions is evidence of impropriety and requires recusal. However, Judge Vance has ignored his obligation and persisted in a course of action that continues to deprive Plaintiffs of due process.