Based on conversations I've had with friends and acquaintances, it sounds like going through a divorce can be one of life's most painful experiences. When you throw children into the mix, the stakes--and emotions--can become very high.
Since starting this blog in June 2007, I've heard from many people who sense they have been wronged in a courtroom. By far, the No. 1 area of concern has been domestic-relations court. Reports from a number of citizens here in Birmingham indicate that Jefferson County has a serious problem with its domestic-relations court. It has gotten so bad that even lawyers are suing judges, which is real "man bites dog" stuff.
In the most recent example, an Alabama lawyer is suing a Jefferson County domestic-relations judge, claiming that he committed criminal acts and violated her constitutional right to have her child-custody case heard by an impartial arbiter.
Angela Turner Drees states in a federal lawsuit that Circuit Judge Ralph A. "Sonny" Ferguson has repeatedly made unlawful rulings that resulted in her being denied all contact with her three children. Drees seeks attorneys' fees and costs and asks that Ferguson be removed from her case.
In her complaint, Drees says her case is one of several that involve wrongdoing in Birmingham domestic-relations court. The complaint names seven individuals who can testify about unlawful actions in the court. Two of the citizens, Marc Kerley and Todd Atkinson, are leading a grassroots effort to spotlight what they say is a longstanding pattern of corruption in Jefferson County domestic-relations court. They say Ferguson and other judges consistently rule in favor of attorneys from firms that have supported the judges' campaigns.
Drees' complaint says Ferguson has caused fraudulent orders to be transmitted via the U.S. mails and the Internet, constituting mail and wire fraud under federal law:
Judge Ferguson has allowed numerous lies and other illegal actions and misrepresentations to be entered into evidence including perjured testimony submitted under oath, false evidence, manufactured evidence and evidence designed to intentionally subvert the legal process. Judge Ferguson has further repressed objective evidence from being heard and has misrepresented events and actions relative to the case. Such false evidence was in part manufactured by counsel, knowingly submitted to the Defendant and then entered into the official public record and involving multiple final orders which, despite Plaintff’s attempts to remove or correct same no less than fifteen (15) times, have remained in this case and have been given full force and effect of state law.
Angela and Kile Turner agreed to an uncontested divorce and undisputed custody arrangement in 2005. At the time, Angela Turner had given up a successful law practice to be a stay-at-home mother, caring for the couple's 5-year-old triplets.
About nine months later, Angela Turner asked the court to revise its order, saying her former husband had misrepresented his income by more than $80,000 and that the visitation schedule was not working for the triplets. Kile Turner responded by suing for full custody.
Richard Vincent, of Boyd Fernambucq Vincent & Dunn, represented Kile Turner. Boyd Fernambucq is one of the Birmingham firms that, Kerley and Atkinson say, supported Ferguson's campaign and receives unlawfully favorable treatment in his court.
After a three-year custody battle that generated more than $300,000 in legal fees, Kile Turner was awarded full custody of the triplets.
Angela Turner said the court's final order in the custody case showed no finding of unfitness on her part. The change in custody apparently was driven by allegations that her new husband, Dr. Hajo Drees, had been convicted in Nebraska of domestic violence against his former wife and one of their children.
The lawsuit against Ferguson says those allegations were false, and the judge admitted they were false:
The final Order transferring custody of the Turner children from the agreed upon arrangement between the Turners (Civil Action No. Dr 05-0354,01,02,03 RAF) is based on false material facts submitted by the Father and his counsel of record in an attempt to mislead the tribunal and sway the defendant’s final decision. The undisputed facts show that the Plaintiff’s new husband, Dr. Hajo Drees, has never been found guilty, has never been arrested for, nor has he ever been convicted of any domestic violence against his wife or any of his children and that said statement was manufactured by Defendant Kile Turner and his counsel Richard Vincent to specifically change the outcome of their case. The Plaintiff attempted to correct the said false order no less than fourteen times and finally, the Defendant himself admitted that there was no “quote conviction.” (R.A. Ferguson colloquy at compliance hearing; January 7, 2007)
Dr. Hajo Drees has filed a lawsuit in state court alleging abuse of process, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and outrage for the actions taken in Ferguson's court. That matter is pending in state court.
You can follow the Drees lawsuit at Marc Kerley's Web site, Crisis in the County. The link to the Drees complaint and related documents is here.
Drees probably faces an uphill battle with her lawsuit because of the doctrine of judicial immunity. In short, it's almost impossible to successfully sue a state judge in federal court for deprivation of constitutional rights. If a state judge is acting in his judicial capacity--no matter how corruptly or maliciously his actions are--he probably is protected by judicial immunity.
Most Americans have no idea that a noxious concept such as judicial immunity even exists. And they know even less about the monumental effort judicial groups put up to make sure that state judges could cheat parties with impunity.
A 1984 U.S. Supreme Court case called Pulliam v. Allen put a major gash in the armor of judicial immunity. It allowed for prospective injunctive relief against state judges who clearly were ruling outside the law and violating rights to due process and equal protection. It even said that wayward judges could wind up paying the winning parties' attorney fees and costs. The late Harry Blackmun probably was best known as the author of Roe v. Wade, but he also was the author of Pulliam.
How much did Blackmun's fellow "jurists" hate Pulliam? You can get an idea by clicking here. The Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1996 (FCIA) essentially overruled Pulliam and gave state judges a virtual license to cheat.
Most Americans have no idea what they lost with passage of the FCIA. It means that a corrupt state judge can violate your constitutional rights--and if your state appellate courts are corrupt (as they are in Alabama) and let him get away with it--you probably have no recourse. FCIA is almost certainly the single biggest reason so many state courts are riddled with corruption.
We will be writing much more in future posts about FCIA, Pulliam, and the desperate need for a check on unfettered judicial immunity. But for now, let's just say that it will take some terrific lawyering--and probably quite a bit of luck--for Angela Turner Drees to get very far with her lawsuit. And that's too bad because her family clearly has been traumatized--financially, psychically, and emotionally--in Jefferson County Domestic Relations Court. And she raises issues that should be important for all Alabamians--whether they ever personally wind up in domestic-relations court or not.
As we have noted here at Legal Schnauzer, lawyers tend to deny or cover up judicial wrongdoing. But Angela Turner Drees appears to be cut from a different sort of cloth. Her lawsuit is a rare example of an attorney pointing a finger at a judge who appears to be acting unlawfully. And hers is not the only example where a Birmingham-area lawyer has essentially said, "I've had it up to here with the sleaze in Jefferson County domestic-relations court, and I'm going to do something about it."
We will be reporting on another such lawsuit. And we will tell you about the experiences of people like Marc Kerley and Todd Atkinson.
When it's all pulled together, the story of Jefferson County domestic-relations court sounds like something out of a John Grisham novel. It includes a crude skit that apparently was designed by local lawyers to shift cases from one judge to another--the new judge being one who was expected to give them favorable treatment. It includes a mysterious hunting club, where judges and divorce lawyers allegedly gather to make all manner of unsavory deals. It even includes an outrageous tale of what amounts to court-sanctioned child abuse.
It's vile, ugly--and important--stuff. And you will be reading about it here at Legal Schnauzer.