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“Fair Game” or Smoking Guns in Shelby Judicial Races?

Incumbent judges and Democratic dissidents are protesting the fairness and politics of the process.

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With the August 7th election still six weeks away, controversies continue to swell about aspects of the judicial portion of  the ballot.

• On Sunday, members of the Shelby County Democratic Executive Committee, who have combed over the matter of their judicial endorsees several times already, were summoned to the IBEW Union Hall on Madison for one more go-round — this time to hear complaints from candidates who felt themselves ill-served, either by the endorsement process itself or by the way it was administered.

The meeting would eventually dissolve for lack of a quorum, but not before an illuminating dialogue had occurred — replete with second-guessing and recriminations.

• Separately and simultaneously, several incumbent judges running for reelection are beginning to grumble about the way their opposition came to be, citing an August 2013 letter to members of the Ben F. Jones [African-American] chapter of the National Bar Association from chapter president Imad Abdullah, who, with the 2014 judicial election cycle then pending, advised recipients that "we have a golden opportunity to unite as a community of attorneys of color with the goal of running 'one member per race.'" 

In the letter, Abdullah asked for responses of interest by September 16th of last year, in order to expedite early endorsements by the Ben F. Jones chapter.

In both instances cited above, the complainants charge that undeserving candidates have been rewarded at the expense of more deserving, experienced jurists. Perhaps understandably, given the potentially inflammatory racial aspects of the Ben F. Jones matter, the aspersions that have been cast regarding it tend to be more private and sotto voce than public.

Further complicating the Ben F. Jones case, one of the two persons mentioned in Abdullah's letter  as responsible for carrying out the "one-member per race" agenda is attorney Ricky Wilkins, better known publicly this year as a Democratic primary challenger to 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen.

There are points of overlap between the roiling disputes going on among Shelby County Democrats and the more cautious venting of discontent among judicial incumbents.

One of them concerns the race for Criminal Court judge, Division 6, between incumbent John Campbell and challenger Alicia Howard.

Though her name was not mentioned at Sunday's contentious meeting of the Democratic Executive Committee, Howard was indirectly referred to at that meeting by Van Turner, the immediate past chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party and an objector to the way the party committee handled the judicial endorsement process this year.  

Turner had been a member of the smaller party selection committee that had studied the entire roster of judicial candidates. That committee offered to the party's larger executive committee a list of candidates deemed acceptable. The first criterion was that of candidates' party loyalties, as demonstrated by the frequency of their votes in past Democratic primaries and the paucity of their votes in Republican primaries.

Beyond that issue, there had been at least a modest effort by the selection committee to make judgments about professional experience and integrity, and it was in that regard that Howard did not make the list of original recommendees.

As Turner said in Sunday's session, "We sent you some names, and I understand the party did something different. ... A person can be a good Democrat and a horrible judge. We've got egg on our face when we put someone on the ballot who's been ... " And here Turner referred in somewhat vivid and colloquial terms to legal charges levied against the still unnamed Howard.

The facts of the case are spoken to in a memo from July 1, 2011, from the state Supreme Court's Board of Professional Responsibility, announcing an 18-month suspension for Howard. In the language of the Board:

 

Ms. Howard violated the Rules of Professional Conduct by failing to timely file a Petition and signing and notarizing her client's signature to the Petition without indicating the client's permission to do so in violation of Rule 3.3 (candor to the tribunal); 3.4 (fairness to opposing party); 4.1. (truthfulness); and 8.4 (misconduct). In a second complaint, Ms. Howard submitted the applications to the AOC billing for work not performed by Ms. Howard in violation of Rule 1.5 (fees); 5.5 (unauthorized practice of law); and 8.4 (misconduct).             

 

In lay terms, Howard was held liable for forging a client's name to a document without authorization and for obtaining payment from the state Administrative Office of the Courts under false pretenses. Turner had put the matter more broadly and more colorfully, but the bottom line was that candidate Howard's legal practice had been suspended for misconduct until earlier this year.

Howard is an African American, and so is Turner. The debate that raged Sunday (inconclusively, since it was established early on that the number of committee members present was insufficient to make a quorum) partook not at all of racially based rhetoric.

Nor, for that matter, has the grumbling among judicial incumbents about the Ben F. Jones Association endorsements been overtly racial. Several incumbents, including Division 7 Criminal Court Judge Lee Coffee, an African American, have been openly critical of what they consider unqualified opponents. (Ironically, Coffee was originally considered "non bona fides" by the Democratic judicial-selection committee by virtue of his frequent votes in GOP primaries, but was given the endorsement by the full Executive Committee after making a stout defense of his Democratic credentials.) 

As yet another example of the color-blind aspect of the argument, defenders on Sunday of the Committee's original endorsements tended to be African American, and they vigorously upheld the endorsement of David Pool, a Caucasian, over incumbent Judge John Donald, an African American, who had been absent from the endorsement meeting.

Saturday's Democratic executive meeting was called by local party chairman Bryan Carson in response to what he deemed a legitimate complaint by Kathleen Gomes, the incumbent judge in Probate Court, Division 1, that she had not been informed of the committee's June 5th endorsement meeting, where she could have made her professional and political status clear.

The Committee heard on that occasion from candidates Damita Dandridge and Richard Parks, who was given the party endorsement after a speech in which he said about the absent Gomes, "She's a Republican, and she conducts her court like a Republican." The reality is that both Parks and Gomes (as she insisted on Sunday) had consistently voted in Democratic primaries (as, presumably, so had Dandridge).

A further reality is that Parks has an avowed grudge against Gomes for adverse rulings against a client of his that he regards as improper. In emails to the Flyer, Parks styles himself as "a change agent, a public servant first," and, noting that Gomes has the support of Mayor A C Wharton and his wife, lawyer Ruby Wharton, charges that "the Wharton Machine [is] making sure Gomes is guarding the chicken house at the Probate Court."

Influential executive committee members such as Samantha RajapakseLexie Carter, and TaJuan Stout Mitchell argued that the party's credibility, as well as its campaign schedule, depended on avoiding alterations, as signs of what Rajapakse called "flip-flopping."

Others were not bashful about expressing their reservations. At one point, Carson said: "The executive committee kind of undermined what we on the selection committee did. ... To me you were uninformed."

Another view regarding party endorsees with suspect credentials was expressed by ex officio member Del Gill, who argued that the only binding criterion was that of party loyalty. "Anything else is fair game. Whether they've been disbarred, like money or don't like money, wear dresses, or whatever."

The next opportunity for the Democratic Executive Committee to reconsider the matter may not come until its next regular monthly meeting on  July 9th.

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