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Are Divorce Courts Hopelessly Corrupt?

By       Message Roger Shuler     Permalink

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Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer

A hunting club in rural Alabama provides the setting for Alabama judges and lawyers to fix divorce cases, according to two lawsuits filed in U.S. district court. Public documents indicate the club also might be involved in fixing criminal cases.

The allegations do not come from a regular citizen; they come from a legal insider--attorney Joseph W. Blackburn, who teaches tax law at Samford University's Cumberland School of Law.

Both lawsuits claim that a hunting club--which sources tell Legal Schnauzer is in Lowndes County, near Hayneville--served as the base for a criminal enterprise under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

Included as defendants in the lawsuits are Birmingham attorneys Charles Gorham, George Richard Fernambucq and L. Stephen Wright--in combination with "unknown defendants"--who hunted and fished together as controlling members of the hunting club. Judge John C. Calhoun, who lost his re-election bid in 2006, and Judge R. A. "Sonny" Ferguson, who remains on the domestic-relations bench, also are defendants.

In the first lawsuit, filed in 2007, Blackburn was a plaintiff, claiming he was injured by the corrupt actions of lawyers and judges during his divorce from Sharon Lovelace Blackburn, a federal judge. In the second lawsuit, filed in August 2009, Blackburn serves as attorney for plaintiffs claiming they were victimized in Jefferson County domestic-relations court.

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According to court documents, Blackburn accuses the judges and lawyers of conspiring to run "a 'good ole white boys' club,' aimed at ensuring that only white males, to the exclusion of everyone else, would run the Jefferson County, Alabama circuit-court system."

The hunting club is at the heart of the illegal activity, Blackburn alleges, and it involves substantial sums of money. Why was the club formed? Court documents provide the answer, stating that "RICO enterprise" aims were to:

(a) stream illegal benefits to any "club" judges;

(b) inflate attorney fee awards--at the expense of hapless litigants--to club lawyers; and

(c) defraud the public, specifically women and minorities, by keeping the club secret from them while insiders benefited from favorable judicial treatment.

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A RICO lawsuit requires at least two distinct but related "predicate acts" that are violations of criminal statutes. Blackburn lays out a stream of criminal acts in court documents. The following paragraph provides the guts of the RICO allegations:

Ferguson and Calhoun bargained for and accepted, and said Defendant attorneys paid Ferguson and Calhoun, a quid pro quo share of such illegal Enterprise profits. In making and accepting such payments, Ferguson, Calhoun and said Defendant attorneys engaged in predicate acts of Hobbs Act violations, Travel Act violations, money laundering, monetary transactions violations, and mail and wire fraud.

The scheme dates to at least 1993, Blackburn claims, when Calhoun was appointed an Alabama state-court judge. For many years before that, Calhoun had hunted and fished with Gorham, Fernambucq, Wright--and other unknown attorneys--as controlling members of the hunting club.

For some time, the club operated in a legitimate fashion. But that changed when Calhoun became a judge and failed to disclose his conflicts of interest. According to court documents:

It was improper, Blackburn says, for Calhoun to continue as a member of that club while serving as a judge in these attorneys' domestic relations cases.

The hunting club's influence might not have been limited to domestic-relations cases. It also apparently was involved in Jefferson County criminal cases. Court documents state that at least one criminal-court judge and several attorneys associated with him hunted together at the club. The judge and the lawyers "were personal friends and practiced criminal law in that court's circuit."

How deep does the hunting-club enterprise go? Blackburn states that it grew to include "law firms, law partners, members, shareholders, and support staff . . . and it may include corporate entities or other legally recognized entities such as partnerships or LLCs, through which such persons are engaged in the practice of law."

Blackburn paints a picture of a Birmingham legal community that is riddled with corruption. Among the law firms named in the complaints are Gorham and Cason; Najjar Denaburg; and Boyd Fernambucq and Vincent. And that does not include any number of unknown law firms and attorneys.

These law firms' activities, as described by Blackburn, sound an awful lot like organized crime. But the mainstream Alabama press has been largely silent on the issue. We will not be silent here at Legal Schnauzer.

Our blog has reported before on corruption in domestic-relations court. But the hunting-club revelations, as reported by a member of the legal community, take the sleaze to a whole new level.

We would not be surprised if similar outfits are operating in other parts of the country, corrupting the judicial process and harming thousands of mothers, fathers, and children.

(To be continued)


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I live in Birmingham, Alabama, and work in higher education. I became interested in justice-related issues after experiencing gross judicial corruption in Alabama state courts. This corruption has a strong political component. The corrupt judges are (more...)

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