|B. Avant Edenfield|
A prominent Georgia lawyer wrote a glowing tribute of B. Avant Edenfield, calling him a "judge for the ages." Edenfield's legacy will be far from glowing in Alabama, where he ensured that mothers, fathers, and children will continue to suffer from divorce courts that are designed to bring in big, easy bucks for lawyers--while leaving unlucky litigants holding crumbs.
That's not just my opinion. Multiple Alabama lawyers--victims themselves of corrupt divorce courts--have filed federal lawsuits, alleging that certain judges and lawyers gather periodically at remote, woodsy locations to rig divorce cases. Documents in one of the lawsuits allege that hunting-club participants also rigged criminal cases, and we see no sign that the court seriously considered that issue.
One of those lawsuits, filed by retired Cumberland School of Law taxation professor Joseph W. Blackburn, landed before Edenfield, who was specially assigned to hear it from the Southern District of Georgia. Here is how we set the stage in a post from September 2010:
A hunting club in rural Alabama provides the setting for Alabama judges and lawyers to fix divorce cases, according to two lawsuits filed in U.S. district court. Public documents indicate the club also might be involved in fixing criminal cases.
The allegations do not come from a regular citizen; they come from a legal insider--attorney Joseph W. Blackburn, who teaches tax law at Samford University's Cumberland School of Law.
Both lawsuits claim that a hunting club--which sources tell Legal Schnauzer is in Lowndes County, near Hayneville--served as the base for a criminal enterprise under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).
Note that Blackburn presents a precise location for the hunting club; he wasn't just talking in generalities. Who was behind the alleged ugliness? It included some big names in the Birmingham legal community, and Blackburn named them:
Included as defendants in the lawsuits are Birmingham attorneys Charles Gorham, George Richard Fernambucq and L. Stephen Wright--in combination with "unknown defendants"--who hunted and fished together as controlling members of the hunting club. Judge John C. Calhoun, who lost his re-election bid in 2006, and Judge R. A. "Sonny" Ferguson, who remains on the domestic-relations bench (now retired), also are defendants.
In the first lawsuit, filed in 2007, Blackburn was a plaintiff, claiming he was injured by the corrupt actions of lawyers and judges during his divorce from Sharon Lovelace Blackburn, a federal judge. In the second lawsuit, filed in August 2009, Blackburn serves as attorney for plaintiffs claiming they were victimized in Jefferson County domestic-relations court.
How did the enterprise function? Blackburn explains it, but be forewarned, this is nauseating stuff to read:
According to court documents, Blackburn accuses the judges and lawyers of conspiring to run "a 'good ole white boys' club,' aimed at ensuring that only white males, to the exclusion of everyone else, would run the Jefferson County, Alabama circuit-court system."
The hunting club is at the heart of the illegal activity, Blackburn alleges, and it involves substantial sums of money. Why was the club formed? Court documents provide the answer, stating that "RICO enterprise" aims were to:
(a) stream illegal benefits to any "club" judges;
(b) inflate attorney fee awards--at the expense of hapless litigants--to club lawyers; and
(c) defraud the public, specifically women and minorities, by keeping the club secret from them while insiders benefited from favorable judicial treatment.
If proven, those charges could have sent any number of lawyers and judges to prison. On the civil side, they would have resulted in sizable damage awards for injured plaintiffs. But Edenfield made sure that wouldn't happen by denying Blackburn an opportunity for discovery--butchering simple procedural law in the process.
What happened? Both sides presented "matters outside the pleadings," in the form of affidavits, and that meant that the defendants' Motion to Dismiss had to be converted to a Motion for Summary Judgment--with both sides given a chance to conduct discovery.
We explained the applicable law in the following post, and even showed that Edenfield knew the proper procedure under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure--but failed to apply it. (See opinion at the end of this post.)
Both Rule 56 and Eleventh Circuit case law state that summary judgment cannot be granted when the nonmoving party (in this case, Blackburn and the other plaintiffs) have been given no opportunity to conduct discovery. As we explained previously, this is all laid out in a case styled Snook v. Trust Company Bank of Georgia, 859 F. 2d 865 (11th Cir., 1988). From our earlier post:
Snook states, in pertinent part: "This court has often noted that summary judgment should not be granted until the party opposing the motion has had an adequate opportunity for discovery. . . . The party opposing a motion for summary judgment has a right to challenge the affidavits and other factual materials submitted in support of the motion by conducting sufficient discovery so as to enable him to determine whether he can furnish opposing affidavits."
Sounds simple, doesn't it? So how could federal judges get it wrong? Well, Edenfield's own words show he intentionally cheated the plaintiffs . . .
How do we know that? Consider this:
The record shows that Blackburn and the other plaintiffs asked for an opportunity to conduct discovery, and they were denied. The record also shows that Edenfield considered at least two "matters outside the pleadings." As we've already shown, that means the motions to dismiss had to be treated under the rules for summary judgment--and discovery had to be conducted. So we've established that Edenfield got it wrong. Now, let's establish that he got it wrong on purpose. To do that, we visit page 24 of Edenfield's ruling. (See the ruling at the end of this post.) In footnote 17, Edenfield writes:
In that the Court is relying on evidence outside the pleadings, it will apply the summary judgment standards set forth in Part II(C) supra.
That tells us that Edenfield was not incompetent; he knew the rule. Unfortunately, it also tells us that Edenfield was a cheat. He unlawfully denied discovery to make sure the hunting-club scheme would not be exposed to the public. He wanted to make sure that lawyers Fernambucq, Gorham, and Wright (and probably others) would not have to sit for depositions or turn over sensitive documents that might have outlined the criminal scheme.
In other words, Edenfield engaged in a cover up. And that has led to untold misery for too many Alabama families. In terms of fixed criminal cases, it might have helped dangerous individuals return to the streets. Did Judge Edenfield care about the everyday people he harmed, or the lives he might have put at risk? Apparently not. It seems clear he found it more important to protect certain members of the legal tribe than to ensure the justice system worked according to law.
Patrick T. O'Connor, secretary of the State Bar of Georgia, wrote the following words in his "tribute" to Edenfield at Atlanta-based dailyreportonline.com:
Despite our close relationship, he never favored me or my clients. If anything, he bent the other way to ensure fairness. For Judge Edenfield, the law was always supreme and, when it came to the law, relationships came second.
Based on Edenfield's handling of the hunting-club case, those two sentences are a crock of pure manure. Perhaps the late judge got some cases right. But in one that mattered a lot to many Alabama families, he was little more than a crook in a snazzy robe. In my experience, a judge who is crooked in one case almost certainly was crooked in others.
The law was "always supreme" for Judge Edenfield? The hell it was. In at least one case, protecting members of the legal tribe clearly was No. 1--and Edenfield's own words prove he ignored the law.