Courts in dozens of Carolina counties, law schools affected ahead of Hurricane Florence

Judiciary

Hurricane Florence/Sasa Kadrijevic via NASA (Shutterstock.com.)

Continuing coverage: Courts in the Carolinas and Virginia are announcing closings as a downgraded but still dangerous Hurricane Florence is poised to make landfall.

As of 3:48 a.m. ET Thursday, courts in 67 of the state’s 100 counties are closed or scheduled to close, the North Carolina Judicial branch reports. Judicial branch tweets listed here indicate that affected courts will be closed through Friday, and courts and offices in some counties will also be closed Monday.

Disaster Response Resources

ABA Resources

• ABA Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness

• ABA YLD Disaster Legal Services Program

• ABA LPD Disaster Resources

Disaster Helplines

The Disaster Distress Helpline (DDH) is a national hotline dedicated to providing year-round disaster crisis counseling. This toll-free, multilingual, crisis support service is available 24/7 via telephone (1-800-985-5990) and SMS (text ‘TalkWithUs’ to 66746) to residents in the U.S. and its territories who are experiencing emotional distress related to natural or man-made disasters.

For low-income individuals with disaster-related legal needs, the following phone numbers are available:
North Carolina residents: 1-833-242-3549
South Carolina residents: 1-877-797-2227 ext. 120

ABA Journal Coverage

Volunteering Opportunities

Looking to donate your time or money? The ABA Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness has a list of ways to do so at ambar.org/DisasterRelief.

Attorneys licensed to practice in South Carolina can volunteer for the South Carolina Bar’s disaster relief legal service hotline by filling out this form.

On Thursday, the storm was downgraded to Category 2, according to the National Hurricane Center, with maximum sustained winds of 100 mph. A National Hurricane Center map posted at 5 p.m. ET Thursday projects landfall Friday afternoon along the southern coast of North Carolina before dipping into South Carolina.

A tweet from the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center says parts of the Carolinas could receive 40 inches of rain.

South Carolina’s chief justice, Donald Beatty, warned of possible closings of government offices, including courts. Beatty said county chief judges could direct that certain matters go forward despite closures or delays, and should conduct bond hearings at least once a day, if conditions are safe to do so.

Judges assigned to counties operating as normal should be flexible in granting continuances to attorneys and parties who experience personal issues caused by the weather conditions that prevent their appearance in court, Beatty said.

A Sept. 11 order by Beatty said courts would be closed in counties where state government offices were not operating. As of Thursday morning, state offices were closed in 18 South Carolina counties, according to the state’s emergency management division website. Tweets are available here.

The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts on Wednesday announced the closings of multiple federal courthouses and advised checking district websites for more information.

Five courthouses were closed in the Eastern District of North Carolina, two courthouses were closed in the District of South Carolina, and two courthouses were closed the Eastern District of Virginia. Updates are being posted on Twitter.

Virginia has also announced court closings here.

Law schools are also announcing closings, Law.com reports. They include the Charleston School of Law, the University of South Carolina School of Law, the University of North Carolina School of Law and North Carolina Central University School of Law.

The ABA Law Practice Division, meanwhile, sent an email to ABA members who live in areas that could be affected by the hurricane. The email linked to online disaster resources.

The division offers several tips, including these:

• Keep an emergency contact list on paper and in the cloud that can be accessed by a computer or phone.

• Back up information in the cloud and test it to make sure it is working. If you have backup on external hard drives or flash drives, they may be safe in the dishwasher. You can also carry a waterproof flash drive in a waterproof bag.

• Use an email service that retains email for delivery when power is restored.

• Banks may be closed for a while, so keep some cash and critical documents in a waterproof safe. Consider offering advances to employees to help them recover from a disaster.

• Consider buying a generator.

• Keep important electronic devices on “uninterruptible power supply” to prevent damages from surges and outages.

• Remote wipe laptops and mobile devices lost in a disaster. They should also be encrypted.


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State Farm to pay $250M to settle suit claiming it orchestrated win of justice who voted its way

Judiciary

JHVEPhoto/Shutterstock.com.

State Farm has agreed to pay $250 million to settle a class action claiming the insurer created a RICO enterprise to secretly fund the election of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier, who later voted to overturn a $1.05 billion verdict against the Bloomington, Illinois-based company.

U.S. District Judge David Herndon gave preliminary approval to the settlement on Sept. 5 and scheduled a hearing on final approval for Dec. 13. Trial had been scheduled to begin last week, and Karmeier was scheduled to testify. The Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg News have coverage.

The suit had alleged State Farm used nonprofits to secretly fund and orchestrate Karmeier’s election.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Robert Clifford, told Reuters that the litigation helped expose truths about hidden corporate influence in judicial elections. “We learned a lot about dark money in America,” Clifford told the wire service.

The problem isn’t confined to Illinois, he said. “And it’s not going to change unless there’s campaign finance reform.”

Clifford said Karmeier’s deposition testimony will likely be released after final approval of the settlement.

The plaintiffs’ amended complaint had alleged State Farm supported the election of Karmeier in 2003 and 2004 through the Illinois Civil Justice League and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. State Farm orchestrated as much as $4 million of Karmeier’s $4.8 million in campaign contributions, the amended complaint had claimed.

A State Farm lawyer helped found the ICJL and hired its president, Ed Murnane, who helped run Karmeier’s campaign without claiming about $700,000 in expenses as in-kind donations, according to the complaint. The Illinois Civil Justice League’s PAC contributed nearly $1.2 million to the Karmeier campaign, the suit said.

State Farm’s CEO played an important role on the chamber of commerce committee that targeted the supreme court race, the complaint says. State Farm contributed $1 million to the chamber, which then contributed about $2 million to the Illinois Republican Party, which then contributed nearly twice that amount to support Karmeier, the suit says.

After Karmeier’s election, plaintiffs who had obtained the $1.05 billion judgment against State Farm sought Karmeier’s recusal in the pending state supreme court appeal. In response to the plaintiffs’ recusal motion, State Farm misrepresented the magnitude of its support, the complaint had alleged.

The plaintiffs who obtained the judgment had claimed State Farm breached its contract with them by using nonoriginal parts in vehicles damaged in crashes. When the Illinois Supreme Court decided the case in 2005, Karmeier voted to overturn the award.

Karmeier joined the majority opinion that included four other justices. Another justice did not take part in the 2005 case, and two others partly concurred and partly dissented.

The vote lineup: Four justices, including Karmeier, agreed that the plaintiffs did not prove breach of contract. Six justices, including Karmeier, agreed that a nationwide class action should not have been certified. Fortune had covered the 2005 decision.

State Farm said in a press release announcing the RICO settlement that it continues to deny liability and it believes the plaintiffs’ claims are without merit. The press release says both sides settled because they “believe it is in the best interest of all the parties and to avoid protracted litigation and appeals that could continue for several more years.”


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Suit: Blank Rome tried to ‘play cute’ in de facto merger to defraud Dickstein partners

Law Firms

Twitter.

Sixteen former partners at Dickstein Shapiro allege in a lawsuit that Blank Rome structured a merger of the two law firms as an “asset sale” to avoid repaying money in their capital accounts.

The former partners say the combination is a de facto merger and they are owed $4 million, the Recorder reports. The suit was filed Wednesday in Los Angeles superior court.

Blank Rome acquired more than 100 Dickstein Shapiro lawyers in February 2016, leading to the dissolution of Dickstein. Equity partners at Dickstein were informed that same month that they wouldn’t be getting any capital back.

At its peak, Dickstein Shapiro had more than 400 attorneys, but the number had dwindled to about 130 before the acquisition.

The lawsuit contends transactional lawyers at Blank Rome tried to “play cute” by labeling the merger as an asset sale. The “solitary purpose” of the “thinly veiled ploy” was “defrauding former Dickstein Shapiro partners (who were necessarily not going to be a part of Blank Rome),” the suit says.

Virtually all of Dickstein Shapiro’s clients and business went to Blank Rome, which assumed Dickstein Shapiro’s Washington, D.C., lease and personnel, the suit says. As a result of the de facto merger, the suit alleges, Blank Rome assumed Dickstein Shapiro’s contractual obligations, including the obligation to pay departing partners for their capital accounts.

The Dickstein Shapiro partnership agreement requires repayment of capital with interest over a four-year period for partners who depart and continue practicing law, and immediately for partners who retire, according to the suit. The 16 Dickstein Shapiro plaintiffs say they all had positive capital accounts, and they all left the firm on or before the merger date.

A Blank Rome spokesperson told the National Law Journal that the lawsuit has no merit and the firm plans to vigorously defend it.


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Kavanaugh responds to gambling questions, explains rebuffed handshake

Supreme Court Nominations

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh said he has not accrued any gambling debts, though he occasionally visited New Jersey casinos when he was a student.

Kavanaugh disclosed his occasional gambling and explained debts on previous financial disclosure forms in written answers to follow-up questions posed by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held hearings last week. The National Law Journal, the Washington Post, USA Today and the Associated Press have coverage.

Kavanaugh told senators that, on the few occasions when he did go to casinos, he recalls playing low-stakes blackjack. He has never received a tax form reporting gambling earnings and never reported a gambling loss to the Internal Revenue Service. Nor has he ever participated in any fantasy sports leagues, and he has never been treated for a gambling addiction.

On many legal questions, Kavanaugh continued to refuse to answer on the ground that the issues could come before him as a judge. The nominee also refused to comment on tweets and statements by President Donald Trump on the ground that judges should refrain from comments on current events and political controversies.

But Kavanaugh did respond to a question about whether he personally believed Nazis and white nationalists were “fine people”—a reference to an assertion made by Trump about some of the people participating in the 2017 rally staged by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one person was killed. “There is no place in American public life for vile ideologies of hate,” Kavanaugh said.

Kavanaugh also responded to a question about whether a president should be able to use his authority to pressure government agencies to carry out his directives for purely political purposes. “No one is above the law,” he responded.

A judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit, Kavanaugh went on to say that during his time in the White House under George W. Bush that he “lived by the principle that everything the government does must be based on sound legal principles and a legitimate factual basis. Pure politics is never enough.” As a judge, Kavanaugh said, “I have never and will never bow to public pressure from any president, any senator, or any other political actor.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats submitted 1,278 written questions for Kavanaugh, more than the combined number of written questions submitted to every prior U.S. Supreme Court nominee in history, according to a press release by the committee Republican majority. The volume of questions “appears to be just one more effort to gum up the process,” said Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, in the release.

In the written follow-up questions, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., had asked Kavanaugh about the reasons for the nominee’s runup in debt in 2015 and 2016. Kavanaugh’s 2016 financial disclosure statement had reported he had three credit cards and a loan from a thrift savings plan, and he owed between $15,000 to $50,000 on each of the credit cards and the loan.

Kavanaugh said the debt was “not close to the top of the ranges.”

Kavanaugh, 53, said the thrift plan loan was to help with the down payment on his home in 2006, and it was repaid with regular paycheck deductions. He also “sunk a decent amount of money” into his home for repairs and improvements that included replacing the heating and air conditioning systems and the water heater, painting and repairing the exterior, and addressing ceiling leaks and flooding in the basement.

He also is “a huge sports fan” who purchased four season tickets and playoff tickets to Washington Nationals games each season from 2006 through 2017. A group of friends would divide the remaining tickets in a “ticket draft” at Kavanaugh’s home, and everyone who received a ticket paid Kavanaugh “based on the cost of the tickets, to the dollar. No one overpaid or underpaid me for tickets. No loans were given in either direction.”

Kavanaugh also explained an email in which he referenced a “game of dice.” It read: “Apologies to all for missing Friday (good excuse), and growing aggressive after blowing still another game of dice (don’t recall). Reminders to everyone to be very, very vigilant w/r/t confidentiality on all issues and all fronts, including with spouses.”

Kavanaugh was he was referring to his first date with the woman who would become his wife, and the “game of dice” was not a game with monetary stakes. Kavanaugh met his wife, Ashley, when they were both working in the White House in 2001 and their first date was the night before the Sept. 11 attacks. “In the email,” Kavanaugh said, “I was asking my friends not to share my interest in and upcoming date with Ashley with their spouses.”

Kavanaugh’s answers also addressed why he rebuffed the handshake offer from the father of a school shooting victim in Parkland, Florida. Fred Guttenberg had approached Kavanaugh during a break in the committee hearings and held out his hand.

“If I had known who he was, I would have shaken his hand, talked to him, and expressed my sympathy. And I would have listened to him.”
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh explaining why he didn’t acknowledge the father of a school shooting victim during his confirmation hearings

Kavanaugh said the man yelled his name, approached him from behind and touched his arm. Kavanaugh said it had been “a chaotic morning with a large number of protesters in the hearing room.”

“When I turned and did not recognize the man, I assumed he was a protestor,” Kavanaugh wrote. “In a split-second, my security detail intervened and ushered me out of the hearing room.”

“I unfortunately did not realize that the man was the father of a shooting victim from Parkland, Florida,” Kavanaugh wrote. “Mr. Guttenberg has suffered an incalculable loss. If I had known who he was, I would have shaken his hand, talked to him, and expressed my sympathy. And I would have listened to him.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a Sept. 20 vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination, report Politico and CBS News. The full Senate could vote during the week of Sept. 24.

Democrats on Thursday made motions for the release of additional documents from Kavanaugh’s time in the Bush White House, but Republicans voted them down.

Related articles:

ABAJournal.com: “Live blog of confirmation hearings, Day 1: Kavanaugh pledges an open mind in every case”

ABAJournal.com: “Live blog of confirmation hearings, Day 2: Kavanaugh answers ‘Purple Party’ president hypothetical”

ABAJournal.com: “Live blog of confirmation hearings, Day 3: Kavanaugh won’t say whether president’s character matters”

ABAJournal.com: “Live blog of confirmation hearings, Day 4: Yale law prof says Kavanaugh is best choice for Democrats”


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Illinois judge convicted of fraud no longer on the bench, state high court says

Judiciary

Jessica Arong O’Brien.

Jessica Arong O’Brien, convicted of mortgage fraud in February, is no longer a judge in Cook County, Illinois, the state supreme court has concluded.

An announcement said O’Brien told the Illinois Supreme Court on Feb. 21 that she would resign if post-trial motions for acquittal or a new trial were denied. A federal judge denied those motions on Sept. 4, making O’Brien’s resignation effective on that date, the court said.

The Chicago Sun-Times and the Cook County Record have coverage.

O’Brien had dropped her bid for retention in a November election on Sept. 5, but did not announce a resignation at that time. She has been performing administrative duties since being indicted in April 2017.

O’Brien’s lawyer, Steve Greenberg, told the Sun-Times that O’Brien has sent in resignation paperwork “as she said she would.”

O’Brien was convicted of mail and bank fraud in a $1.4 million mortgage fraud scheme from 2004 to 2007 involving two straw buyers of investment properties who later defaulted on payments. During that time, O’Brien owned a real estate company, worked part-time as a loan originator with another real estate company and was a lawyer with the Illinois Department of Revenue.

O’Brien’s law license had been placed on interim suspension in April. The Illinois Courts Commission was reviewing O’Brien’s case and had scheduled a hearing for Sept. 24. O’Brien’s sentencing hearing in the criminal case is Oct. 9.

Recasts headline at 8:38 a.m.


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