Friday, August 27, 2010

Alabama Democrats Pull a Shocker--And We Love It!

Elisabeth French

The Alabama Democratic Executive Committee yesterday threw a curveball at the public, while essentially flipping a giant middle finger to Gov. Bob Riley and the Alabama State Bar. We give both actions two thumbs up.

Most observers, including this one, expected the committee to remove Kenya Lavender Marshall from the general-election ballot for a spot on the Jefferson County Circuit Court and replace her with Nicole Gordon Still. The process that led to Marshall's removal reeked of politics, but we figured the Democratic committee would cave and pick Still, who had placed second to Marshall in the party primary.

We, however, underestimated the committee. They indeed removed Marshall, following allegations from the State Bar that she had misappropriated $30,000 in a client fund. But instead of going with Still, who had been appointed to the judgeship last June by Riley, they chose Birmingham lawyer Elisabeth French. With no Republican in the running, French is likely to take office in January 2011.

Our first reaction to the news was shock. After all, French had not run in the primary. But state party bylaws do not limit who can be considered if a party nomination is vacated. The committee had every right to consider someone who had not run for the position, and we now think choosing French was a master stroke--the kind of gutsy, smart move for which Alabama Democrats are not always known.

On paper, French is at least as qualified as Still and more qualified than Marshall. Both French and Still have practiced law for 13 years, while Marshall has five years of experience.

We have not seen Still's full biography, but it appears that most of her experience has come while working in law firms operated by her father, Bruce Gordon. He worked for years at the state's largest employment law firm, Gordon Silberman Wiggins & Childs (now Wiggins Childs Quinn & Pantazis) and now leads the Birmingham firm of Gordon Dana Knight & Gilmore. As we reported yesterday, Bruce Gordon has ties to the Rileys. He represented Alabama Pain Consultants, a company affiliated with Homewood attorney Rob Riley, the governor's son. We suspect that connection to the Rileys is the reason Nicole Gordon Still was appointed in the first place.

French has been in solo practice since 2008. But before that, she worked for 10 years at the Birmingham firm Pittman Hooks Dutton Kirby & Hellums. She focused on complex civil litigation and environmental law. The firm focuses on products liability, personal injury, medical malpractice, premises liability, among other areas. French is married to Courtney French, president of the Alabama Association for Justice and a member of the Birmingham firm Fuston Petway & French.

Still, taking a page from Artur Davis, came across as an ungracious loser. In a written statement, she said:

What has happened today is deplorable. This decision circumvents the election process and the will of the Jefferson County Democratic Executive Committee. While there are many great candidates worthy of office in November, this is a bleak day for the Democratic Party in Alabama.

The Frenches supported me during my entire campaign and urged others to vote for me. Then, they used their relationships and the dynamics of this election in order to be handpicked for this judgeship without ever going through the election process.

In addition to spewing sour grapes, Still seems to be exhibiting a selective memory:

* The decision circumvents the election process?--That was circumvented when the Alabama State Bar went after Kenya Lavender Marshall, just three weeks after she had won the primary. And did Bob Riley, who appointed Still, have anything to do with that? Does Nicole Gordon Still know about actions others took on her behalf, in an effort to "circumvent the election process"?

* The Frenches used their relationships?--They probably did; that's standard political practice. But what about Ms. Still? Did her father's connections to Rob Riley help get her appointed in the first place?

* French was "handpicked" for this judgeship?--What do you call it, Ms. Still, when Bob Riley appoints you, probably with the influence of your father? That's not being handpicked?

The decision to pick French already is being colored in racial terms. She and Marshall are black, and Still is white. Some have speculated that the party felt it had to replace one black female with another. And it's certainly possible that both race and gender played a role in the final selection.

But I don't think that tells the whole story. Just a few weeks ago, Alabama Democrats soundly rejected Artur Davis, a black male who had openly courted the state's business establishment in an effort to become governor.

Now, Alabama Democrats have rejected Nicole Gordon Still, who courted the state's legal establishment. Her father is a prominent and influential attorney. Her father has clear ties to Rob Riley. She was appointed by Bob Riley. Her husband, S. Chris Still, works for Balch & Bingham, one of the most pro-business law firms in the state. According to his bio, Chris Still works heavily with electric and nuclear energy companies. It seems safe to say that he represents companies that are connected to Bill Canary's Business Council of Alabama.

Perhaps this wasn't so much about race. Perhaps true Alabama progressives stood up and took a stand yesterday. Perhaps they, in essence, said, "We've seen the business establishment in this country ruin our economy. We've seen the legal establishment in this country corrupt our justice system, especially here in Alabama.

"We rejected Artur Davis, and we now reject Nicole Gordon Still. And it is not because of their skin color. It's because they have cozied up to the establishment forces who have consistently acted against the best interests of regular, everyday Americans. It's time that we push for a true progressive agenda--in Alabama and beyond. And we are taking a stand for such an agenda today."

If that was the thinking behind the decision to select Elisabeth French, I am all for it.


Robby Scott Hill said...

Power to Peoples of Color! The Cherokee Nation will rise again, along with The Black, The Brown & The Poor White. It looks like The Alabama State Bar has outsmarted itself.

legalschnauzer said...

You think they will suddenly come up with a bar complaint on Elisabeth French?

Robby Scott Hill said...

You mean invent one? It's amazing how when you or any of the "small people" have a bar complaint that is backed up with plenty of facts against someone like Bill Swatek who has a long history of malfeasance, it goes into the recycle bin. Yet, when Riley's people have a dubious accusation against a lawyer who has no other blemishes on her record, The Bar moves into action immediately to back the political interests of the Governor. Keith Norman & Tony McClain are going to go down in history as the biggest political tools since the KKK controlled The Bar.

legalschnauzer said...

Rob: Yes, I was talking about inventing one. You wonder how desperate these people must be to get their person on the court. And it does make you wonder if this is tied to matters that Rob Riley has, or will have, before the court--a point you very wisely pointed out. Kenya Marshall apparently was guilty of sloppy bookkeeping, but a four-year suspension of her license when a guy like Swatek hasn't been touched since Riley's been in office? I will be interested to see if Kenya Marshall files some type of civil rights or RICO lawsuit over all of this. With the right attorney, I suspect she could turn up some interesting information--or get a nice settlement, including reinstatement of her license. I'm hardly an expert on racketeering, but so many of the Riley crowd's actions smack of that.

Elizabeth H. said...

Grounds for hope are so very welcome.

MaxShelby said...

Love this move by the Alabama Dems!
Anytime you can stick it to Balch & Bingham and big business, you have done well IMHO.
Still needs to take that sanctimonious attitude of hers and leave the building. I don't know who is worse in the tantrum department; her or Artur. Either way, both are disappointments and Dem in name only.
But the Govs race is going to be interesting. Bentley is the one true love of the above groups and I would not be surprised to see some shenanigans being pulled on Sparks.
The press seems too eager to carry the Repub talking points as of late.

Redeye said...

I love you Legal Schnauzer! You are a talented and brave blogger. Thank you for having the courage to speak truth to power.

lawbabe said...

You think Bob Riley's people came up with the complaint against Marshall, and that it was initiated AFTER Marshall won the primary? No--the complaint was initiated by Marshall's CLIENT, who was being hounded by his creditors because his medical bills weren't paid--medical bills that were supposed to be paid by Marshall out of her client's trust account (you know, the account all lawyers have to keep for client's money--you learned in Ethics class, if you were awake, that you NEVER spend this money unless for your client's benefit!)

Furthermore, all ethics complaints filed against Jefferson Co. lawyers go first to the Grievance Committee of the Birmingham Bar Association, where volunteer lawyers of all political persuasions vet it. If there is cause, it goes to the state bar for further vetting and the bringing of charges. THIS TAKES MONTHS, people. It does not happen in three weeks.

The Rules of Professional Responsibility are there to protect clients from unethical lawyers (yes, those do exist), not to harass politicians. Mrs. Marshall is fortunate that she was offered a deal like this. Many people feel she should have been disbarred. Perhaps she was cut slack because of her powerful father, Simmie Lavender. She did not "submit" --she took a deal, and a good one at that. If she felt strongly that she was innocent, she could have had a trial. A trial she could have lost, since they apparently had all the copies of the checks that went for her personal expenditures and not her client's medical bills. The client even got his creditors to try to discuss this with her, and she hung up on them! Is this your "progressive" heroine?

The Jefferson County Democratic Party is funded chiefly by the filing fees paid by candidates. Nikki Still paid her dues, after doing a good job on the bench. She was chosen by Riley only after being one of the three names submitted to him, all three Democrats because the local judicial commission happened to be of that persuasion.

All this has done is to show people that if you play by the rules, you get burned. It will discourage good, ethical lawyers from seeking judicial positions. Not a very progressive lesson.

legalschnauzer said...

Lawbabe: I didn't say I thought Riley's people initiated the complaint and it was initiated after Marshall won the primary. But it's a fact that the Alabama State Bar did not take action until after Marshall won the primary, and I find that curious. You say the Rules of Professional Responsibility are there to protect clients from unethical lawyers. But it's up to the State Bar to enforce the rules, and I know from personal experience that they do a miserable job of it. I also know from personal experience that they pick and choose who they go after, apparently based on political considerations. I've filed bar complaints against three lawyers who acted in blatantly unethical fashion--and one of them has a 30-year history of ethical problems--and the Bar didn't even investigate them. I've seen firsthand that the Alabama State Bar tolerates unethical behavior among lawyers and takes a handsoff approach to certain people while going after others. Nikki Still's problem is that she tried to ride the Riley horse, and a lot of people now realize he is probably the most corrupt governor in AL history. I think she was seen as Riley's gal, and people rejected her because of that. She took a chance on siding with Riley, and it came back to bite her.

Robby Scott Hill said...

Well, excuse Roger for having a blog. What makes this blog relevant is that it has exclusive content about The Riley's and their quest to game the legal system that one isn't going to find anywhere else and I don't think Roger is going away. He's been doing this for over three years and I hope he does it for twenty.

legalschnauzer said...

Lawbabe: According to my research Kenya Marshall is the late Simmie Lavender's grand daughter. And you think Nikki Still's powerful father, Bruce L. Gordon, didn't have something to do with her appointment to the judgeship in the first place? Bruce Gordon has documented ties to Rob Riley. You don't think that helped? I bet it did. And I also bet it was the No. 1 reason the committee rejected her.

Anonymous said...

Schnauzer, what's going on with your lawsuits?

legalschnauzer said...

I've got a number of other topics I'm writing about right now. Will get to that down the road. If you can't wait, send me an e-mail with your real name on it, and I'll be glad to fill you in. Maybe we can meet for lunch or I can stop by your law firm for a chat. You work at a law firm, right?

My personal e-mail is published on the front page of the blog:

As you notice, I go by my real name and don't hide behind terms like "anonymous." If you are so interested in my personal legal matters, I'm sure you won't mind telling me who you are. That's only fair, right?

lawbabe said...

I don't doubt that Riley would have chosen Still from the three names that came to him, and perhaps it was because of his son's connection to her father, who knows. It's not the first time this has happened--I can think of other occasions when the judicial commission sent three names and a Governor chose one he knew from family connections. But remember that those three names come from the Judicial Commission, so there are checks and balances. Nominations that come through the judicial commission often produce better candidates than elections, in my opinion.

Elisabeth French's nomination was pure politics--no semblance of checks and balances here. Of course I hope that she will prove to be a fair judge, but an aura of unfairness will undoubtedly hang over her head for her tenure on the bench. Whatever trust the public had in blind justice is tainted because of this decision by the state party.

I've never served on the Grievance Committee myself, but I'm sure it's no picnic. The proceedings of course are very private, so we rarely get an idea of what the allegations and outcome really are unless the lawyer is publicly disciplined. It would be impossible for me to comment on your own experience, of course, without knowing more. I just know that it's Ethics 101 that you don't pay anything but client bills out of your trust account. A lawyer who does that deserves whatever they dish out, and I don't see how you can call that political harassment.

legalschnauzer said...

Lawbabe: If you are serious about trying to do something about injustice, I would be glad to meet with you and tell you more about my experience, not only with the State Bar but various lawyers and judges in Alabama. You sound like a thoughtful person, and what my wife and I have experienced is disgraceful--and should happen to no one. Through this blog, I've gotten to know a bunch of other people who have been cheated in the legal process. If you are serious about such matters, let me know. My personal e-mail is:

By the way, if Ms. Marshall really stole client funds, she deserves serious punishment. No one is disputing that. But as you note, the Bar acts in such a secretive fashion that most of us have no idea what the evidence was in the case. And again, I find the timing--three weeks after she won the primary--very curious.

I know firsthand that an attorney with close ties to the Riley family is an absolute sleazebag--and I've reported him to the State Bar. With no investigation at all. So I have a hard time seeing the Bar as being above the political fray--which it should be.

Robby Scott Hill said...

Vladimir Lenin's legal career was sabotaged by government authorities and it came back to bite them in the ass big time.

lawbabe said...

I can assure you that I am serious about dealing with injustice. Since you are the owner of this blog, you know who I am. I can't imagine how you can claim to be a progressive Democrat and support a lawyer who clearly violated the Rules of Professional Responsibility by spending her client's funds on personal expenses. Your insistence on referring to the charges against Marshall as being brought only three weeks after she won the Democratic primary reeks of dishonest journalism, not progressive commitment. For goodness sake, she hung up on her client's creditor in JUNE, knowing there was a pending ethics charge, instead of reinstating her client's funds and paying his bills as she should have done in the beginning. It should not matter what color a lawyer is--wrong is wrong.

Innuendo against the bench and bar in general do nothing but foment distrust of our legal system. We get more bang for the buck in the legal system than we have ever won through elective politics. Think Brown v. Board of Education, NY Times v. Sullivan, Miranda v. Arizona.

Come on, Schnauzer. How can you "love it" when justice takes off her blindfold and tips the scale?

legalschnauzer said...

Lawbabe: How does being the owner of this blog tell me who you are? I don't have the slightest clue who are, and that's because you haven't told me. If you don't tell me your real name, I have no way of knowing who you are. I didn't say I supported a lawyer who used client funds to pay for personal expenses. I said I supported the ADEC's decision to pick Elisabeth French over Nicole Gordon Still. As for Kenya Lavender Marshall, I've acknowledged that it's possible she's a scoundrel who deserves serious punishment. But I've also said I find the timing of the Bar's actions curious. And I don't have anywhere near the trust in the Alabama State Bar that you apparently have. I've seen the State Bar overlook gross misconduct for white lawyers, so I'm not 100 percent sure they got it right with Ms. Marshall. I'm not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Marshall did anything other than make a mistake with her trust accounts. You have correctly stated that the Bar operates in a secretive, "trust me" fashion. Well, I don't trust them. By the way, my previous offer still stands. But if you refuse to tell me who you are, I can only assume that you aren't all that interested in the injustice that my wife and I have suffered.

lawbabe said...

I assumed you could see my email address, which is basically my name.

The "timing of the bar's actions" were dictated by the client, who chose a date to file the charges. It takes weeks, perhaps months, to get to the point where they offered her a deal. Fortunately for us, it was in time to disqualify her.

I've practiced law long enough to have some experience and knowledge of client complaints, and I don't share your negative opinion of the process. I'm sorry you had a bad time with it, but you are asking us to generalize from your personal experience that it is untrustworthy, which is not logical. Unless you had access to all records in disciplinary proceedings, which you do not, you cannot say with certainty that the proceedings are applied unfairly to any particular race or gender. I know that both black and white lawyers serve on the grievance committees and in bar disciplinary hearings.

By the way, these proceedings are not criminal in nature, and the burden of proof in a criminal case ("beyond a reasonable doubt") does not apply. Rather, a finding of violation of the rules requires only "clear and convincing evidence."

My only point to press is that a free and independent judiciary is one of the hallmarks of our system of justice. When candidates for the office are chosen through purely political mechanisms, it gives the impression of bias. In this instance, imagine yourself as a white person in this nominee's court, litigating against a black person.

I don't think the override of the electorate and the local party members, to come up with a candidate on purely political grounds, supports an independent judiciary. Just my two cents.

legalschnauzer said...

Lawbabe: Thanks for your two cents. Sending a comment to a blog, at least in the Blogger format that I use, is a little different from sending a regular e-mail. It apparently is filtered through Blogger, which is owned by Google I think, and all I see is a standard kind of Blogger address. I guess that's a privacy feature that many blogging systems use. Like many bloggers, I moderate my comments to keep out the inappropriate and offensive stuff. But I have no way of knowing who it is unless they put their real name on the actual comment, as Robby Scott Hill does in the first comment in this section. Anyway, that's a little Blogging 101 for you. I hope someday to have the kind of belief you do in the righteousness of lawyers, judges, bar officials, etc. But I'm a long way from it. Based on personal experience, and the experiences of many other victims who have contacted me through this blog, I would say that the legal profession is made up of the most unethical people on the planet--and I don't think there is even a close No. 2 profession. Considering that lawyers and judges have the power to ruin people, it's truly frightening. If you've been in the profession for a while and haven't seen the blatant corruption, you must have lived a charmed life.

David DeAngelo said...

You mean invent one? It's amazing how when you or any of the "small people" have a bar complaint that is backed up with plenty of facts against someone like Bill Swatek who has a long history of malfeasance, it goes into the recycle bin. Yet, when Riley's people have a dubious accusation against a lawyer who has no other blemishes on her record, The Bar moves into action immediately to back the political interests of the Governor. Keith Norman & Tony McClain are going to go down in history as the biggest political tools since the KKK controlled The Bar.