Judges don’t reveal relationships; fairness questioned
By Jeff Chirico
Oct 29, 2012
A CBS Atlanta News investigation revealed some Georgia judges fail to disclose relationships they have with attorneys in open court. It raises questions about how fairly the judges dispense justice.
In August, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane awarded custody of Usher's two sons to the Atlanta-based singer and actor. The decision stunned Usher's ex-wife, Tameka Raymond, according to her attorney, Lisa West.
Since the decision was rendered, West said she learned Usher's celebrity attorney, John Mayoue, may have helped Lane get reelected in 2008. According to campaign finance reports, Mayoue's law firm donated $1,000 to Lane's campaign and hosted a fundraising reception that raked in thousands of dollars. According to West, Mayoue also sat on Lane's reelection committee.
"I would classify the relationship as a special relationship," said West.
West said she believes Lane should have disclosed that relationship in open court so she has asked for a new trial and for Lane to recuse herself.
Georgia law allows for attorneys to contribute to judicial campaigns but judges have a heavy legal burden to avoid even the appearance of being biased.
Lane isn't the only judge accused of not revealing special relationships with attorneys. Lane's colleague, Judge Gail Tusan, also failed to tell Ed Dort that his ex-wife's attorney, Robert Boyd, sat on her reelection committee.
"The final judgment and divorce decree basically financially buried me," Dort said.
According to records, Boyd donated to Tusan's campaign days before Dort's wife filed for divorce.
"There's no question she was influenced by the attorneys," Dort said.
Joanna Shepherd Bailey, a professor for Emory University School of Law, said money does influence judicial outcomes.
Shepherd Bailey conducted an extensive study of more than 21,000 State Supreme Court cases and found a strong correlation between judicial campaign contributions and judges' decisions.
"A $1,000 contribution will increase the likelihood of a judge voting in a particular way by, depending on the case, between 1 percent and 7 percent increase in likelihood," Shepherd Bailey said.
Some are calling on judges to be more transparent in open court about contributions they receive and relationships they have with attorneys arguing before them.
"There's no harm in laying all your cards on the table," said Charles Hall, representative of the Justice At Stake Campaign, a group fighting against money's influence on courts.
Hall recommends judges be up front about connections they have with parties involved in a case. If there's any question whether a judge can be fair, then he or she should step aside, Hall said.
Tusan, the judge who presided over Dort's divorce, denied that she is influenced by contributions to her campaign or attorney's efforts to help her get elected.
Tusan said she is in full compliance with state law and discloses all campaign contributions as required by state law.
But after Dort launched an online petition calling for Tusan to step aside, she recused herself.
If there's any question that attorneys know contributions can influence judges, Ken Sullivan of Forsyth County said he has proof.
His divorce attorney, Margaret Washburn, sent him an email in 2010 discussing strategies for their case.
The email suggested, "We find who [the judge's] campaign manager or treasurer was, hopefully an attorney, and add him/her to the team ASAP."
Sullivan said he believes Washburn was suggesting that he contribute to the judge's campaign.
"I don't think padding the judge's campaign manager should have any bearing on the outcome of your case," Sullivan said.
Campaign finance records reveal Washburn, who is also a municipal court judge, has contributed more than $15,000 to judicial campaigns in the last six years.
Washburn emphatically denied she recommends clients make campaign contributions to curry favor with judges.
She claimed the email was intended to help Sullivan find a new attorney.