When Excellence is not Good Enough
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on October 28, 2020
I was going through some old files recently and ran across a copy of the 1993 Alabama Supreme Court ruling in Ex Parte City of Birmingham, et al (Re: Mary P. Chambers, et al v. City of Birmingham, et al), 624 So. 2d 1018. With the passage of time, I had forgotten about this case. Here is what happened to me in that case and why:
On April 21,1992, Mary P. Chambers and Samuel Bowdon, both of whom were white, filed a lawsuit against the City of Birmingham; its mayor, Richard Arrington, Jr.: the members of the Birmingham City Council; and me. The lawsuit challenged the payment of attorney fees to me, sought to enjoin the city from paying me attorney fees in the future, and sought to recover about $8 million in legal fees that had been paid to me from 1985 to 1992. The plaintiffs identified themselves as Birmingham taxpayers and claimed the legal fees were “unlawfully or unreasonably paid”.
All defendants filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Attached to my motion was my 57-page affidavit describing my legal services to the city and listing 73 cases in which I was counsel of record. All 73 cases resulted in favorable outcomes for the city. The overwhelming majority of the 73 cases involved trials in court. At the time, I had the longest winning streak in court litigation in Alabama.
During the period, Birmingham was self-insured against liability claims. Mayor Arrington had determined that it was cheaper to pay me to defeat these claims and/or advance the city’s corporate interests through litigation than it was to pay about $2 million in annual insurance premiums that included a $1 million dollar deductible per claim. He was right.
The 73 cases I handled exposed the city to over $200 million in liability claims. I devised and deployed a technique know as “laser litigation” to defeat them all. I first used this technique when I was representing Walmart in injury claims. Walmart was self-insured and had a “no-settlement” corporate policy. This policy eventually reduced lawsuits against Walmart nationwide. When fully implemented, it drastically reduced Birmingham’s lawsuit burden, as well.
Adverse Media Coverage Fueled Hatred
The Birmingham Post Herald and Birmingham News routinely published articles on the amount of legal fees the city paid me. This inflamed white residents of the city. No mention was ever made of the total financial exposure the city faced from the 73 cases or the elimination of $200 million in potential liabilities for a self-insured city.
I was reviled as the “Mayor’s Nigger Lawyer”, while Arrington was labeled as “Mayor Arrington Nigger”. We received mail through the U.S. Postal Service that was addressed to us with those salutations on the envelope and death threats inside.
While the lawsuit was pending, I was also representing the city of Montgomery. I had been hired by the city’s white, staunchly conservative, Alabama Republican Party Chairman and longtime mayor, Emory Folmar, to advance and protect Montgomery’s corporate interests in complex litigation. Whites never uttered a negative word about my representation of Montgomery or the substantial attorney fees it paid to me. The Post Herald and News were silent on this point, as well.
The High Court’s Ruling
On July 16, 1993, the Alabama Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision directing the trial judge to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaints. The High Court noted that no allegation was made that I did not do the work for which I was paid.
The Court based its decision on a 1978 landmark case (City of Montgomery v. Collins) where Mayor Folmar used city money to pay for private attorneys to defend three white police officers who had been indicted for perjury in connection with the fatal police shooting and coverup of an unarmed Black man named Bernard Whitehurst. No white taxpayers objected to the use of city money to defend the officers in their criminal cases.
It is doubtful whether today’s all-white Republican Alabama Supreme Court would rule in my favor based upon the same facts. Today’s judiciary is one more political theater where all too often allegiance to party ideology not legal principles, guides the outcome of cases.
So Much for Ratings
I was not able to get a Martindale-Hubbell legal rating as a lawyer until after I retired from representing the cities of Birmingham and Montgomery. I had defeated every A+ rated lawyer I encountered from 1985 to 1998. Yet my white peers in the Alabama Bar would not assign any kind of rating for me.
Ratings are not important because I still hold the record in American jurisprudence for:
(1) The longest winning streak in jury trials (which was finally broken in October 2018 in St. Petersburg, Florida);
(2) The most landmark cases in a legal career;
(3) Uncovering the greatest number of law enforcement coverups in fatal shootings of innocent citizens;
(4) Reducing criminal exposure from an 85 felony count original indictment to total acquittal in a single-defendant case; and
(5) Eliminating the most rogue police officers from law enforcement agencies in Alabama
The money I saved Birmingham in insurance premiums and deductible payments went into a “Rainy Day” fund Mayor Arrington established for unexpected emergency. Along with contributions from other savings, the fund grew to over $100 million by the time Arrington left office in 1999. Now, the city is broke and struggling with a $63 million budget shortfall.
I did my job for Birmingham and Montgomery, and did it well. But, white racism has a life of its own. Like “lies with legs”, it leaps from one generation to the next one.
Apparently, our excellence is never good enough.