The daughter-in-law of a plaintiff in a 2014 Baldwin County fraud case filed an eight-page complaint against Baldwin County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Norton to the Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC) last month, later receiving a response indicating the complaint will “receive serious consideration” when presented to the commission at one of its meetings scheduled every eight weeks.
Karen Bass, who filed the complaint on behalf of her in-laws Phillip and Nell Boots Bass, claims Norton broke at least four of the Canons of Judicial Ethics during the years he presided over a case in which the plaintiffs alleged Clarence Burke, David DeLaney and a number of their jointly owned or related companies conspired to mislead Phillip Bass about the purchase price of a piece of Magnolia Springs property where they initially planned to build a sewer treatment plant for the privately owned Baldwin County Sewer Service.
“Our case was a real estate fraud case,” Bass wrote in the JIC complaint dated Oct. 8. “Our case was about the details of the fraud, the misrepresentation of the true price and concealing other facts which we have in writing … Our [case] is about fraud and the details of the deal.”
Yet Bass claims Norton violated several canons and specific rules of civil procedure by “allowing the defendants to change [the] case from fraud into a property value dispute.” Then, four days before it was set for a jury trial in 2017, Norton issued summary judgment in the defendants’ favor, finding mortgages related to the deal were valid and the plaintiffs failed to present “a genuine issue of material fact.”
Bass received a response from JIC dated Oct. 22. The same day, Norton recused himself from a sale for division hearing — one of the final hearings of the case — citing a conflict of interest between himself and developer Albert “Trae” Corte.
Corte, who has partnered with Burke in previous real estate developments, is listed as an employee of Norton’s wife at Wise Living Real Estate, which is marketing The Verandas, a custom home subdivision off State Highway 104 outside Fairhope. Sewer for The Verandas is provided by Baldwin County Sewer Service, which, according to an affidavit filed with the Alabama Supreme Court, is majority owned by Burke and DeLaney under two of their own companies, along with two other minority investor companies.
In a real estate appraisal report dated Oct. 2, appraiser Joseph M. Courtney determined the value of the 242-acre property at the center of the Bass lawsuit was currently worth $1,403,600, far less than the $2,442,535.33 Phillip Bass paid for a 50 percent stake in the property in 2004. Bass’s fraud complaint alleged Burke and DeLaney led him to believe — using falsified federal settlement statements, a “straw company” and other deceitful tactics — that he was paying 50 percent of the price of the property, when he actually paid 100 percent of the money owed to the sellers.
In the JIC complaint, Karen Bass claims Norton failed to rule on several of the plaintiffs’ substantive motions throughout the case, “did nothing” when presented with “evidence that the defendants’ attorneys had been telling lies to the court” and “has appeared to show favoritism toward the defendants throughout our case.”
The complaint also includes reporting by Lagniappe about the case, Norton’s potential conflicts of interest in the Bass case and others, and reporting on his finances, including state ethics disclosure forms indicating that after six years on the bench, Norton was still earning between $50,000 and $150,000 per year from his former law partner Brian Britt for what were listed as “referral fees.” Neither Britt nor Norton have answered questions asking them to specify what case or cases were referred or which law firms were involved. A review of ethics disclosure forms indicates Norton is the only judge in Mobile and Baldwin Counties receiving these types of payments from a former law firm.
“Judge Norton was elected to the 28th Judicial Circuit as circuit court judge in 2012 but failed to file his [first] Statement of Economic Interests until May 6, 2015, for the filing year 2014. Judge Norton does not have one on file for 2013, his first year as a judge, and all but one statement has been filed late. Also Judge Norton has failed to disclose companies, St. Joe Beach Partners LLC and Landmark Properties LLC, which he and his wife are both members of. Both companies are still in business unless dissolution papers have been filed recently,” the complaint states.
The Judicial Inquiry Commission is part of Alabama’s two-tier judicial conduct system, and is an independent agency with “the authority to initiate or receive complaints filed by any aggrieved person concerning any alleged violation by a judge of the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics, misconduct in judicial office, failure to perform judicial duties or inability to perform judicial duties because of a physical or mental disability.”
If a complaint is determined to be valid, JIC may conduct confidential investigations of the allegations. Depending on the findings of an investigation, JIC may file and prosecute charges in the Court of the Judiciary, the second tier of the system.
But according to its own data, such complaints to the Court of the Judiciary are exceedingly rare. Between 1973 and 2018, JIC has only filed 50.
Yet during fiscal year 2018, it received 150 complaints, while carrying over 24 complaints from the previous year. Of those 174 complaints, 132 were dismissed without investigation, while another 18 complaints were dismissed after the completion of an investigation.
The same year, the commission met with two judges regarding the complaints against them, subsequently dismissing one of those complaints. JIC did not file any charges against a judge in the Court of the Judiciary in 2018, but carried over 23 cases into fiscal year 2019.
The nine-member commission includes attorney Billy Bedsole of Mobile as chairman, attorney Maibeth Porter of Birmingham as first vice chairman and Judge William Thompson of the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals as second vice chair. Other members include judges George Hardesty and Michael Sherman of Mobile County, Judge Jeremy Taylor of Dekalb County and three citizen members, two from Huntsville and one from Montgomery.
This report has been corrected to reflect that Bass received a response from JIC dated the same day he recused himself from a sale for division hearing in the case. Previously, it said the recusal was three days after the response.
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