The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

June 16, 2014

Fight advances over black farmers' legal fee

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) Partners in one of the South's prominent African-American law firms have asked the Alabama Supreme Court to remove the trial judge in a lawsuit over how to divide fees from a landmark discrimination case.

State Sen. Hank Sanders and his wife, Faya Rose Sanders, are fighting with the family of their late partner J.L. Chestnut Jr. over a $5.2 million fee from the black farmers' lawsuit against federal agriculture officials. The lawsuit said African-American farmers were denied access to loans and programs by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of their race.

The Sanders family asked the court to remove Circuit Judge Brady Mendheim Jr. from the case because of decisions and remarks he made, including saying before the trial concluded that his decision would likely favor the Chestnut family.

Mendheim made the comment before the Chestnut family had completed their case and before the remaining law partners had a chance to present evidence, according to the court filing.

The partners say Mendheim demonstrated, or at least gave the appearance of bias in violation of the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics.

"In the 43 years that I have practiced law, there have been many times when I knew a judge was going to rule against me, but I never had one state before the plaintiff ever finished their case that he was likely to rule for the plaintiff," the senator said.

Sanders said Mendheim has also not ruled on defense motions and did not allow the partners to present evidence about a 1996 agreement, before the firm reformed as a limited liability corporation, about how they would divide assets if a partner left or died.

Mendheim has not issued a final decision in the action brought by the Chestnut family. He has ordered accountants to come up with a valuation of the law firm.

Martha Morgan, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, said a judge can be disqualified if his impartiality "might reasonably be questioned."

She said the side seeking the disqualification does not have to demonstrate the judge was actually biased but that a "reasonable person would question a judge's impartiality."

Chestnut died in 2008. An attorney for the Chestnut family, retired Circuit Judge Claud Neilson, said he could not comment on the request to the Supreme Court.

Neilson said the estate is entitled to a significant portion of that fee because Chestnut was a driving force in the firm and in the black farmers' litigation that began in 1997.

"At the time of his death, even though the fee had not come in, it was pending. He had started the case," Neilson said.

Neilson said the family had unsuccessfully tried to reach an agreement with the partners.

However, Sanders said the firm was over $2 million in debt when Chestnut died. Sanders said much of the debt was accumulated in the first black farmers' discrimination case, which did not produce a lucrative fee.

"That case literally broke us. We spent millions of dollars on it," Sanders said.

The senator and his wife say they did the bulk of the work in the second, more lucrative case, while the plaintiffs say Chestnut was working on the case until he died.

Chestnut, after completing law school at Howard University, moved back to his native Selma to become the city's first black lawyer in the late 1950s.

He teamed up with the Sanders family in 1972, establishing a firm that became an Alabama powerhouse.


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