When word finally came down last Friday that the Alabama Supreme Court denied Paula DiNardi’s mandamus petition in her suit against Fairhope bar owner Ronan McSharry, it was just the latest bizarre step in a case that has laid bare the ethical and legal shortcomings of Baldwin County’s presiding circuit judge.
McSharry is being sued for shoving DiNardi off a barstool in late 2018, causing her to fall and hit her head. The incident was captured on video, and McSharry was found guilty of charges of public intoxication and third-degree assault in April of last year. Following that criminal conviction, DiNardi sued McSharry.
But things just keep getting weirder and weirder.
Five days after the suit was filed, presiding Circuit Court Judge Clark Stankoski personally asked Judge Jody Bishop to transfer the case to his docket. It was originally assigned to Bishop, but he told Lagniappe Stankoski asked for the new case because he’d presided over an appeal for an unrelated criminal conviction McSharry had in Fairhope’s municipal court for drunkenly threatening the artist Nall Hollis in 2017. Apparently, Stankoski decided he needed to become McSharry’s personal judge.
And that’s been a good thing for McSharry.
The bar owner appealed his guilty plea last year for attacking DiNardi, and Stankoski tossed it out on the technicality that Fairhope’s charging document failed to say McSharry “did cause physical injury to another person.” So, Stankoski cleared the assault charge against McSharry.
Fairhope’s city prosecutor, Marcus McDowell, who made the error on McSharry’s charging document, filed an appeal with the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals … but failed to file a required docketing statement and didn’t file the appeal within the required 14 days! McDowell was even given an additional two weeks by the appeals court to show cause, but never responded. He told us he’s planning to refile the assault charge, but that was in May and it still hasn’t happened. Hmmm?
Meanwhile, as Stankoski oversaw the civil case, he allowed McSharry’s attorney to run amok with a bunch of insane allegations that had absolutely zero bearings on whether McSharry knocked DiNardi off the barstool and hurt her. The judge let attorney James Pittman go wild with a whacko theory this newspaper, Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson, blogger Paul Ripp and attorney Harry Still were working in cahoots to destroy McSharry’s already self-destroyed reputation.
In Pittman’s fantastical imagination, somehow this cadre of McSharry-haters must have somehow gotten McSharry sauced, put him on a stool next to DiNardi, swung his arm into her neck, and done so without appearing on the security camera footage. It’s ludicrous, and any judge with half a brain would have told Pittman to bring it back down to Earth.
But Pittman and Stankoski are buddies and used to work cases together before the state made the massive mistake of appointing Clark Stankoski to the bench. So, Stanky not only let Pittman go down this blind alley, he encouraged it. He actually heard arguments about whether we should all be forced to provide the conspiratorial emails between one another, despite the fact Pittman hadn’t provided any evidence they existed, and that it had zero to do with whether McSharry hurt DiNardi — you know, the actual lawsuit.
Worse yet, what Stanky finally decided would have gotten him a fat F in the media law course I’m sure he never took. He decided Pittman couldn’t subpoena Lagniappe’s email records related to anything we published, but said his buddy could subpoena communications related to things we didn’t publish. I sincerely hope for his sake he was super high when he came up with that nonsense.
The judge also allowed Pittman to harass the owners of the Little Whiskey Christmas Club bar where the incident happened as he needlessly badgered them for two years worth of their security videos. Even a C-minus judge should have immediately recognized that for the waste of time and harassment it was.
Roughly a year ago, DiNardi’s attorney, David McDonald — who represents Lagniappe in a public records lawsuit — filed a writ of mandamus with the Alabama Supreme Court to force Stankoski to stop ruling on motions and sealing case documents without hearings. He’d done both repeatedly for some unstated reason.
Unfortunately, the court denied the mandamus last week without comment, which has become the norm for our SC. I’d say I was shocked, but they’ve been fooling around with it for a year and Stankoski serves on a Supreme Court advisory committee, so it might not look so good to slap his hand. Thankfully, though, two of the justices got it right.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Will Sellers wrote he would indeed vacate Stanky’s order sealing filings in the case precisely because it was done without a hearing.
“It is my belief that before sealing the record in a case, which prevents the public from gaining knowledge of the issues involved in the litigation, a trial court is required, pursuant to this court’s established precedent, to determine whether a movant has met his or her burden of demonstrating by clear and convincing evidence that the requested filings are due to be sealed,” he wrote. Justice Sarah Stewart concurred.
Since no one who voted to reject the mandamus bothered to tell us why they think it’s OK for judges to ignore precedents, seal documents and rule on motions without a hearing, it’s left to the imagination. I imagine it has more to do with embarrassing him than it does proper judicial ethics. What Sellers wrote, though, is crystal clear — Stankoski shouldn’t be sealing files and ruling on motions without a hearing.
But he does. And when he has in this case, it’s always for the benefit of his buddy Pittman and McSharry.
Over the past year, I’ve taken to asking attorneys who practice in Baldwin about Stankoski. Nothing leading, I just ask what they think of him and the way he runs his courtroom. The responses are never positive. He’s a tyrant. Arrogant. For some reason court reporters often aren’t present when he’s performing legal gymnastics over legal precedent. He plays favorites with his buddies. That’s what I’ve heard. Let me know if I’m leaving something out — or if there are other shenanigans we don’t know about yet.
The McSharry saga continues Thursday when Stankoski will preside over the bar owner’s public intoxication appeal. Since McSharry’s never been held accountable for his probation violations, has had one plea deal thrown out on technicalities and has managed to turn a personal injury case into a total circus, I’m betting there will be more strangeness afoot.
And at the center of it will be a guy who really shouldn’t be on the bench. Any judge willing to use his power to manipulate things for his friends should be booted. If you voted for Stanky, I’d urge you to pay close attention to him for the next couple of years. If you’re someone with integrity, who understands and cares about the law and won’t be a good ol’ boy backwater judge, consider running. Baldwin deserves better.
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