|Alabama Judge Sibley|
Reynolds (second from right)
at a hunting club.
Are racism, sexism, and corruption alive and well in a Deep South court system? Are Alabama courtrooms, long infested with a hunting-club culture among lawyers and judges, operating like artifacts from the 1930s?
With news yesterday that Jefferson County Circuit Judge Dorothea Batiste has been suspended from the bench, the answer to both questions appears to be yes. That is especially true when the allegations against Baptiste are compared to the actions of Chilton County Circuit Judge Sibley Reynolds.
We have reported on multiple federal lawsuits that allege Alabama judges and attorneys meet at hunting clubs to fix divorce cases. Judge Reynolds, based on the photo above (plus others that we've received from at least one Web site) clearly is active on the hunting-club scene. We've seen no signs that Judge Batiste enjoys hanging out in the woods, shooting wild animals, and cutting corrupt deals with white divorce lawyers.
Is that why Batiste finds herself on suspension, while Reynolds seems to make unlawful rulings at will from his perch in central Alabama? Do hunting-club judges receive hands-off treatment, while those outside the clique are singled out for sanctions? Sure looks that way from here.
What made Batiste a target of the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC)? Here is how a report at al.com explains it:
Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Dorothea Batiste has been suspended from the bench with pay after the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission last week filed a complaint against her stating she had entered unlawful contempt orders for the arrest of parties or witnesses in divorce cases.
An attorney for Batiste this evening denied the allegations in the complaint, saying the charges against her were being led by a former Jefferson County judge. He said a judge must have the power to issue contempt charges or lose control of the courtroom.
"The whole thing is a huge travesty of justice," said Julian McPhillips, attorney for Batiste.
McPhillips says retired Jefferson County Judge Scott Vowell is leading the attack against Batiste. That is the same Scott Vowell, who as presiding judge, allowed hunting-club corruption to become a major issue in domestic-relations court. (The full JIC complaint can be viewed at the end of this post.)
Here are more specifics on the charges against Batiste:
The [JIC] complaint states the allegations are based on Batiste's violation of Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics "through her repeated failure in 2011 and 2012 to comply with both Alabama and federal law regarding her exercise of contempt power . . . in a series of domestic relations cases in Jefferson County Circuit Court ("the subject cases") in which Judge Batiste entered unauthorized, unwarranted, and unlawful orders for the arrest and jailing or incarceration of litigants or witnesses."
Let's compare that to the actions of Judge Sibley Reynolds in the case of Clanton resident Bonnie Cahalane (Knox) Wyatt. As we reported in a series of posts last year, Ms. Wyatt spent almost five months in jail because of her failure to pay a property-related debt in a divorce case.
It's not as if the controlling law is complicated. Sec. 20 of the Alabama Constitution (1901) plainly states that "no person shall be imprisoned for debt." A search through case law reveals one exception to that general rule, but it does not apply to Bonnie Wyatt's situation. That means she has been unlawfully jailed for almost four months . . . and counting.
Despite clear prohibitions under Alabama law, Judge Reynolds kept Bonnie Wyatt locked up for almost five months. As I write this, Ms. Wyatt is being forced to sell her home, based on an "agreement" that was reached at the threat of her returning to jail. A contract reached under such duress is unlawful, but Ms. Wyatt's house could be sold any day now.
Has Reynolds faced sanctions for his unlawful actions? Apparently not, and multiple readers have told me they have filed JIC complaints against Reynolds. The response from the commission, so far, has been silence.
It certainly is possible that Dorothea Batiste has made mistakes in her brief time on the bench; the JIC complaint portrays a judge who has a tendency to be heavy-handed. But our primary question is this: Would Judge Batiste be home free if she took part in Alabama's hunting-club scene--if she followed Sibley Reynolds' lead and donned camouflage gear to hang out in the woods and cut deals?
The answer, in my view, is yes.