The former law partner of Baldwin County Circuit Court Judge Joe Norton explained that continuing payments for referral fees reported on Norton’s Statements of Economic Interest over the past four years “were from matters that were referred to another firm during the time of [their] partnership … so he’s entitled to his share of those fees.”
While he didn’t elaborate, attorney Brian Britt responded generally to inquiries about the fees after a recent Lagniappe report noted how Norton recently recused himself from a case Britt was representing while it appeared Norton was still on Britt’s payroll. Norton reported income from referral fees earned from Britt’s firm ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 between 2014 and 2016, and between $50,000 and $150,000 in 2017 and 2018, meaning he could have been paid anywhere between $130,000 and $450,000.
According to Thomas Albritton, executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, Norton complied fully with guidelines on reporting the income. Albritton also confirmed there are no statutes requiring the disclosure of more detailed information, including installment agreements, the parties of cases resulting in income, specific amounts or the length with which such payments are expected to continue.
The Ethics Commission requires annual statements of economic interest from all elected officials, appointed officials, political candidates and public employees whose base pay is $75,000 per year or above. The statements disclose information including the names of the official’s immediate family members, jobs of spouses, household income, sources of income and debt obligations, among other things.
Lagniappe began to explore Norton’s financial interests as part of an ongoing, broader effort to identify potential judicial conflicts, and as a follow-up to continued reporting on the private, largely unregulated private utility Baldwin County Sewer Service (BCSS). As the story mentioning Britt’s relationship pointed out, Norton also appears to have an arm’s-length relationship with both the individual owners of BCSS, their business partners and the corporate entity itself through his wife’s real estate company. Meanwhile, he has recently presided over two cases in which plaintiffs have sought damages against the utility.
But compared to his colleagues in the 28th Judicial Circuit, as well as Mobile’s 13th Judicial Circuit, Norton’s referral fees still stand out as an anomaly. According to their own statements of economic interest, the other four judges in the 28th circuit have reported little to no significant supplementary income over the past four years reports have been filed. None of the circuit judges in Mobile reported any similar type of income source either.
Judge Carmen Bosch, whose spouse is listed as an employee of Huntington Ingalls Shipyard, reported nothing in Section 5 of her statement, which provides for the disclosure of additional household income including “the names of each business income is derived from, and the income from each business.”
Judge Jody Bishop, whose spouse is listed as an employee of the Baldwin County Board of Education, reported dividends of less than $1,000 per year from Vanguard in the years 2015 and 2016.
Judge Joseph Stankoski, whose spouse is listed as both self-employed and “not applicable” on his statements of economic interest, reported earnings of less than $10,000 per year for his role as an adjunct professor at Huntingdon College.
Presiding Judge Scott Taylor lists no employment for his spouse and additional income for only a single year. In 2015, Taylor earned an administrative fee of between $50,000 and $150,000 from the estate of Quitman Hamm, who, according to an obituary, was a central Baldwin County farmer and landowner who died in 2007.
Sought for comment about a separate legal story last week, retired judge Lang Floyd, who served for 20 years in the 28th Judicial Circuit before he returned to private practice in 2016, did not mind speaking specifically about potential conflicts of interest, recusals or Norton in particular.
“I’ve heard cases friends were involved in,” Floyd said, recalling his time on the bench. “I disclosed it and the lawyers let me know whether they wanted me to get another judge or not. Sometimes I had a case where both sides were friends and so they both said, ‘yeah, we’ll let you keep hearing because both sides are friends.’ It’s purely a case-by-case basis.
“Sometimes judges have to make tough decisions, especially in Baldwin County,” he said. “You’re going to have people that have some kind of distant, business, social or civic club or a church relationship to you, and a judge just has to make a call.”
Regarding referral fees, Floyd echoed Britt’s comments, claiming such arrangements would be acceptable for fees earned prior to becoming a judge. But he also acknowledged “a judge needs to make a decision what that relationship is and if it affects his or her ability to hear a case where that lawyer is representing. I would have to refer to the Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC) on that issue as far as a recusal or disqualification because I just don’t know off the top of my head what the requirements are in that area.”
JIC opinions can be sought either formally or informally; formal opinions are public record. No such record exists of an opinion sought by Norton and he declined to respond to questions about his referral fees or relationships to parties in cases over which he has presided, but Floyd didn’t hesitate to take a defensive position on his behalf.
“If you think money is being sent illicitly, do you really think they’re going to put it on a report to send to the Ethics Commission?” he asked. “Why in the world would a judge want to raise a red flag like that unless they are very confident it is totally legitimate? I’ve known Judge Norton since the day he came to Baldwin County practicing law in the [District Attorney’s] office … I would be very, very surprised to know [he] does anything other than on the straight up and up.”
In regards to a second case involving Britt, which was briefly assigned to Norton before it was quickly dismissed, Britt explained: “The 2012 city of Daphne matter you cited in your article was settled so quickly that the case was simply dismissed upon the joint request of both parties. No hearing was held in that matter. For what it’s worth, I rarely go to court at all because I’m primarily a transactional attorney. Circuit judges do refer cases to me to mediate from time to time, but Judge Norton has never referred a case to me to mediate.”
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