Jefferson County Circuit Judge Dorothea Batiste is on trial this week in Montgomery, supposedly for making excessive use of her contempt powers in domestic-relations cases. But the real reason for the Batiste trial is that she threatened the revenue streams of certain Birmingham law firms, a source tells Legal Schnauzer.
How did Batiste do that? Upon taking office in early 2011, Batiste discontinued her courtroom's "special masters" program, which had become a major factor in many Jefferson County divorce cases.
What is a special master? The Online Legal Dictionary describes a special master as "a representative of the court appointed to hear a case involving difficult or specialized issues." Certain members of the domestic-relations bar in Jefferson County had come to expect special-master appointments, and our source says this work can help pad a firm's bottom line.
For one thing, lawyers are compensated for their service as special masters. But perhaps more importantly, the part-time jobs allow lawyers to cut favors for each other, in ways that can greatly affect the outcomes of cases . . . and prove lucrative for law firms.
Batiste, apparently thinking a judge actually should do the job of overseeing divorce cases, decided to ax the special masters program in her court. When that happened, certain lawyers let out squeals that apparently could be heard throughout the Alabama legal community. Among the divorce lawyers to squawk the loudest were Steve Arnold, Randy Nichols, and Wendy Brooks Crew--although they hardly were alone.
The lawyers complained about Batiste to Presiding Judge J. Scott Vowell (now retired), and that is what prompted him to lead the charge against her with the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission (AJIC), which suspended her with pay. The AJIC complaint led to this week's trial before the Alabama Court of the Judiciary, where Batiste faces possible removal from the bench.
A special masters program, administered correctly, serves a valid purpose, our source says--especially on a domestic-relations docket where each judge has roughly 3,000 active files. In theory, a special master should rule on preliminary matters--issues related to insurance are common in divorce cases--while allowing the judge to focus on core issues.
But the special masters program in Jefferson County had grown out of control, with masters often ruling on core matters such as custody and child support, while cutting each other favors and issuing orders that might not square with the facts and law of a case. In some instances, our source says, masters would conduct ex parte meetings on critical issues, outside the presence of one party and its counsel.
When Batiste took office, she saw a problem and decided to fix it. In the process, she stepped on some powerful toes, and the owners of those toes went to Scott Vowell.
Why would Vowell undermine a sitting judge at the behest of whining lawyers? It appears that Vowell has some unconventional issues in his personal life--issues that have been well known for years among members of the bar, but are to be kept from public scrutiny. During his years as presiding judge, Vowell and local lawyers reached a devilish agreement--lawyers would keep Vowell's secrets and provide him with power, and Vowell would let them have pretty much anything they wanted.
This arrangement served to significantly pad the bottom lines of divorce lawyers, and if some mothers, fathers, and children suffered because of tainted rulings . . . well, that was just too bad. Scott Vowell and members of the domestic-relations bar, it seems, did not care.
What, by the way, is unconventional about Scott Vowell's personal life? We will be taking a close look at that question in upcoming posts.
As for the Batiste case, AJIC prosecutor Griffin Sikes said in his opening statement on Monday, "This case is about due process of law."
In fact, the case is about lawyer fees, and it has nothing to do with due process, our source says. Did Dorothea Batiste go overboard on some of her contempt findings? Perhaps, but that's not the reason she is in trouble. Scott Vowell definitely knows it, presiding judge J. Michael Joiner almost certainly knows it, and Griffin Sikes probably knows it.
How bad is Jefferson County domestic-relations court? Our source puts it in perspective:
"It's like a doctor using his knowledge to kill people rather than to cure. What goes on in that court is contrary to everything you are taught in law school. You have lawyers using their knowledge of the law to harm people, even children."
The Batiste trial is expected to continue through today.