Seaton: A Judge Goaded Too Far

Prefatory note: My mean-ass editor started the week with a post on a goaded judge, so I thought it would be fun to end the week with my all-time favorite story of a goaded judge and the lawyer who pissed him off. For reasons I’ll keep to myself, I’ll just say the following is a true story, with names and certain facts changed to protect the parties involved—CLS

Harrison “Harry” Blodgette was a trial attorney in Driftwood County, Alabama. Possessed with an over-the-top personality, an outspoken demeanor and a never-ending supply of bravado, Harry’s claim to local legal fame was bankrupting a Wal-Mart franchise over workers’ compensation issues. While that lawsuit lined Blodgette’s pockets and helped him start his own firm, the judgment and its residual effects left a bad taste in the mouth of many who lost jobs and a place to find goods at low prices.

People like Harry tend to make enemies. Unfortunately, one of Harry’s enemies was Circuit Judge Jim Waters. Waters oversaw the judicial district which covered Driftwood County, and was one of a handful of “circuit” judges who rotated around the district hearing cases.

If Judge Waters had any love or respect for Harry Blodgette, it never showed. An offhanded mention of Harry’s name would send Judge Waters into a tirade over the “loser” he called “a fat, no talent sack of shit who only has a wife because he’s got money.”

Similarly, if one asked Harry Blodgette about Judge Waters, the lawyer would launch into an expletive-laden rant about the jurist he deemed unfit to judge a livestock competition at the county fair.

This lawyer-judge feud was so acrimonious its effects boiled over to members of Blodgette’s firm. Judge Waters held so much contempt in his heart for Harry Blodgette that it became an unwritten rule at the firm if your client’s case was in front of Judge Waters you needed to have a talk with the client about what to do in the event you lost the case.

The pair’s hatred for each other occasionally welled up in public. Once, during a medical malpractice case, Mr. Blodgette filed a motion for Judge Waters’ recusal. The judge took the motion under advisement then contacted the State Bureau of Investigation with a criminal referral. Waters, in the referral, claimed he did so because he felt Mr. Blodgette’s client, a well-respected surgeon, murdered the decedent at the center of the case.

Blodgette responded by filing a complaint with the State’s Board of Judicial Conduct alleging Judge Waters conspired with the Driftwood County District Attorney to wiretap Harry’s phones.

After dueling complaints ended with the state Boards of Professional Responsibility and Judicial Conduct, the two ceased hostilities for eleven years.  Then Al Bishop walked into the Blodgette Firm’s offices, unexpectedly setting the decades old hostilities back into public view once more.

Bishop was a farmer who liked to ride horses in his spare time. One day, a dirt bike struck Bishop’s prize trail horse while the farmer was out for a ride, and the injuries left Al unable to care for his land. Harry thought a personal injury suit was meritorious, so he filed the necessary complaint at the Driftwood County courthouse.

What Harry didn’t know was that week the courthouse clerks just began using a computerized filing system that assigned cases randomly to judges in the district. Previously, the clerks used their knowledge and discretion to assign different cases to the appropriate judges so folks got a fair trial. Now an algorithm had the discretion thanks to a state mandate, and that algorithm assigned Judge Waters the case of Bishop v. Boone.

Once Harry found out, he set to work filing the mother of all Motions to Recuse. Harry’s motion didn’t just call for Judge Waters’ recusal in this case; it called for Judge Waters’ recusal in this case and any future cases that came before Judge Waters filed by Blodgette or any member of his firm. Judge Waters sat on the motion for a year and filed three separate complaints with the State Board of Professional Responsibility against Harry in the interim.

Once a year passed without as much as a ruling, Harry filed a “Motion to Render Decision” with the Circuit Justice, asking that judge to either compel Judge Waters to rule on the motion for recusal or do it for him. In a surprising turn of events, Judge Waters scheduled the hearing on Harry’s motion two days later.

During the hearing, Judge Waters denied Harry’s motion, citing his ability to be fair and impartial, claiming he had no bias or prejudice against Harry or any member of his firm, and held the year-old motion was “untimely.” Judge Waters, peculiarly, also stated during the hearing he’d had “certain officials look into this matter” who “cleared [him] to try cases involving this firm, particularly Mr. Blodgette.”

With no other option left, Harry filed an extraordinary appeal with the Alabama Supreme Court.

The Alabama Supreme Court justices scratched their heads at the record, wondering how in the hell things had gotten this bad. Their holding said any reasonable person would question Judge Waters’ fairness and impartiality in light of the judge’s history with Mr. Blodgette. They disqualified Judge Waters from Al Bishop’s case and remanded it to another judge in the district.

Judge Waters never heard another case of Mr. Blodgette’s. He would eventually retire after several years of handling mostly uncontested matters thanks to tweaks the clerks made with the new computerized filing system. Harry is no longer with us, having passed away from health complications a couple of years ago.

But the story of the pissing contest between Harry Blodgette and Judge Jim Waters will remain in Driftwood County’s history and case texts forever.

2 thoughts on “Seaton: A Judge Goaded Too Far

  1. F. Lee Billy

    And we thought the Bermuda Triangle of Legal Minds was located in the North, specifically NU Yawk, CONnecticut and mASSachusetts.

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