Thursday, February 14, 2008

Judges and Lawyers as Targets

Here's a kind of story I'm surprised we don't see more often.

It involves three guys who apparently decided to order a hit on a judge and an attorney. And it all happened close to home, in the south Alabama town of Ozark, not far from Dothan.

A father and son, and one other individual, were arrested on felony counts of conspiracy to commit murder. The plot went awry when the suspects attempted to hire an undercover police officer to carry out the hit.

The targeted judge and attorney were taking part in domestic-relations cases involving two of the suspects.

Since I started this blog, I've heard from a number of readers who said they felt they were being mistreated in family courts. From the details they shared with me, in most cases it sounded as if my readers had valid reasons to be concerned. All of my correspondents have been women, but it's easy to find sites on the Web devoted to men who feel they have received unfair treatment in divorce or child-custody cases.

Fortunately, I've never been involved in a domestic-relations case, and I know very little about that area of law. But I can imagine that emotions tend to run high in such cases. And I'm sure it doesn't help when a judge appears to be playing favorites with one party or another, perhaps out of friendship with an attorney in the case.

I don't know what was going on in the case from Ozark, Alabama. It's possible that the judge and the attorney were doing everything in a proper and lawful manner. It's possible that the suspects in the hit decided to blame someone else for problems they had largely caused themselves.

So why do I say I'm surprised we don't read about these kinds of stories more often? Well, based on my own experiences in Alabama, and from what I've read about judicial corruption in other states, we have a whole lot of unethical judges--and attorneys--out there.

And unethical judges and attorneys are not just irritating, but benign, presences. They have victims--innocent people who are vulnerable and afraid, who have a right under our constitution to expect fair treatment under the law.

What can these victims lose as a result of actions by a corrupt judge or attorney? Well, just about everything that matters to them--their families, their homes, their money, their possessions, their freedom. Victims also can lose their health--both physical and mental.

And that's why I'm surprised more victims don't lash out. No one is advocating that people do that. But I think officials in our justice system need to ponder the notion that corrupt judges can push their victims to the point of snapping.

The situation is made worse by the fact that judges are held almost totally unaccountable in our society. A victim who complains to a bar association, a judicial inquiry commission, or law enforcement is likely to be ignored or laughed off.

So no one should be shocked when violence is directed at judges, and it has happened in recent years. In 2005, we had a case in Chicago where the husband and mother of a federal judge were murdered by a man who had been a party in several civil cases. Also in 2005, a judge, court reporter, and deputy were shot and killed inside an Atlanta courtroom by the defendant in a criminal case.

Stories about attorneys being the targets of violence are fairly common. Perhaps the most recent came last week when attorney Gregory Clark was fatally shot while shoveling snow outside his Rockford, Illinois, home. Police believe Clark might have been shot by a former client.

A key point: I've seen no indication that the judges in the Chicago or Atlanta cases--or the attorney in Chicago--were doing anything improperly. And even if they were, nothing justifies the actions of parties who already were emotionally unstable.

But take it from someone who has seen it firsthand: The justice system is remarkably cavalier about the wrongdoing of judges and lawyers.

Just consider two cases that have been the subject of many posts here at Legal Schnauzer. I'm talking about the Don Siegelman case in Alabama and the Paul Minor case in Mississippi. In the two cases combined, four men are imprisoned, and we (along with other journalists and bloggers) have shown that their convictions were unlawful.

So you have four men being held political prisoner in what is supposed to be the greatest democracy on earth. And does anybody seem to be in any hurry to do anything about it? Not that I can see. Heck, there isn't even a transcript in the Siegelman case so that his attorneys can file an appeal. I've seen a transcript in the Minor case, and the actions of federal judge Henry Wingate were so corrupt as to be mind-boggling.

Does anybody in authority care? Congress is making some effort to look into the issue of selective prosecution by the Bush Justice Department, but it sure seems to be taking its sweet time. And it doesn't help, of course, that Republicans are putting up roadblocks at every step, including today's walkout in the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, try to put yourself in the shoes (and prison cells) of Don Siegelman, Paul Minor, Wes Teel, and John Whitfield. Can you imagine what that must be like? Can you imagine what it's like to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 years old and to know you are facing a prison sentence that is going to take a big chunk of your remaining natural life--for something you didn't do?

Now consider this: If you were in the shoes of Siegelman & Co., and it appeared that justice was not going to be done, and you had the resources to fight back, would you think about doing what these fellows in Ozark, Alabama allegedly did? Would you consider taking out a "hit" on somebody?

While Congress and others dither, here is something that people in authority do not seem to consider when it comes to corrupt judges: For every corrupt judge, there are multiple victims. And those victims are real people--they bleed, they cry, they sweat, they laugh, they feel. They can also snap, whether they were once powerful public officials or just regular folks.

As for the corrupt judges and attorneys themselves, here is a question they never seem to ask themselves: Is it possible someday that I could push somebody too far?

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