The lawyer in question was Jennifer Paige Clark, who was found dead at her Mobile home last May 26, nine days after the state bar had suspended her license on charges that our research shows were unfounded. The clients were Ms. Clark’s parents, Larry and Hilda Clark of Flowery Branch, Georgia.
At least three major oddities about the Jennifer Paige Clark case strongly suggest that bar officials knew they had no legitimate grounds for investigating her, much less imposing discipline. So why did they do it? It’s almost certainly because Ms. Clark was doing exactly what lawyers are supposed to do–she was providing her clients with zealous representation, and certain judges did not welcome that.
Our investigation shows Ms. Clark uncovered facts that made powerful interests uncomfortable in two states. When politically connected judges could not force her off the trail, they apparently sicced the Alabama State Bar on her. The bar responded by charging Ms. Clark with rules violations that she clearly did not commit–and by conducting a disciplinary trial that, public documents show, make a kangaroo court look dignified by comparison.
What politically connected judges are we talking about? No. 1 on the list is Georgia Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, the son of the state’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal. Public records suggest that Judge Deal did not appreciate an Alabama lawyer aggressively pursuing a case against a Georgia municipality and took steps to get Ms. Clark removed from the case. Did that include voicing his displeasure to the Alabama State Bar, leading to a baseless investigation? The answer appears to be yes. (See Judge Deal’s order revoking Ms. Clark’s admission to practice in Georgia, at the end of this post.)
Even the Alabama State Bar seemed to acknowledge that its original charges against Jennifer Paige Clark were bogus. How do we know? In suspending Ms. Clark’s license and seeking her disbarment, the bar made almost no mention of the original charges. Rather, it cited Ms. Clark’s conduct during the discipline hearing as the primary grounds for suspension.
Our review of the hearing transcript shows that Ms. Clark did not engage in inappropriate conduct–unless you consider it inappropriate to express irritation at being forced to defend yourself against trumped-up charges. Ms. Clark’s main response was to repeatedly, and correctly, state that she could not violate attorney-client privilege by discussing inside information about the case. The Alabama State Bar decided such “misconduct” merited sanctions that essentially would ruin Ms. Clark’s career.
Nine days after those sanctions were announced, Ms. Clark was found dead. An official cause of death still has not been announced.
Jennifer Paige Clark’s story provides a tragic twist to one of many ugly truths in our dysfunctional justice system. As we have shown in several posts, your own attorney often can prove to be your worst enemy in any court battle. Why does this happen? We will provide more details in a moment, but here is the short answer: The outcomes of many legal battles, in both state and federal courts, have little to do with the relevant facts and law; rather, they often are decided by compromised judges who play favors for certain parties or attorneys.
Published reports indicate Jennifer Paige Clark did not play along with that game. Consider this section from Ms. Clark’s obituary, featuring comments from Mobile County District Judge Charles N. McKnight:
Jennifer Clark could be “the sweetest person,” according to Mobile County District Court Charles McKnight, and was well liked. “But get her in a courtroom and you could get something completely different,””said McKnight. “She was a very hard worker. She was tenacious to a fault. She vigorously represented all her clients regardless of their station in life. I admired her willingness to represent the lowest of the low.”
If Jennifer Clark provided vigorous representation for “the lowest of the low,” imagine how hard she would fight for her parents? Ms. Clark represented her parents in a pair of property-related cases, using aggressive discovery tactics–and documents in the cases indicate the Clarks uncovered misconduct involving powerful forces in two Southern locales.
One is Hall County, Georgia, which perhaps is best known to sports fans for hosting the Atlanta Falcons NFL training camp at Flowery Branch. Gainesville, the county seat, is where former Congressman and current Georgia Governor Nathan Deal built his political base.
The other hot spot is in Baldwin County, along Alabama’s Gulf Coast and home to a burgeoning real-estate market where beachfront condominiums can yield massive profits for certain developers.
What about the three oddities that raise serious questions about the Alabama State Bar’s motives and actions in the Jennifer Paige Clark case? Here they are:
* The Alabama State Bar initiated the investigation on its own–The bar can do this under Rule 3(c) of the Alabama Rules of Disciplinary Procedure. But I know from personal experience, and based on information provided by other citizens, that the state bar routinely declines to investigate cases where evidence of attorney wrongdoing is clear and irrefutable. That suggests it is rare for the bar to launch an investigation on its own.
* There was no client complaint against Jennifer Paige Clark–Our research indicates the vast majority of bar investigations are launched by a client complaint. But there was no such complaint against Ms. Clark; by all accounts, her parents were pleased with her representation.
* The investigation was launched based on information that Jennifer Paige Clark provided to the bar–You heard that correctly: The Alabama State Bar launched an investigation because of information that Ms. Clark herself sent to them. That strongly indicates Ms. Clark did not have a “guilty mindset.” Would she have copied the bar on correspondence that she thought contained a violation of bar rules? Of course not. Ms. Clark clearly did not think she was violating any rules, and our research indicates she was correct about that.
Why do so many lawyers turn against their own clients? For many, it’s a matter of survival in a profession where the pursuit of power and billable hours has become far more important than the pursuit of justice.
In far too many cases, corrupt judges decide that one party or attorney is going to receive a favorable judgment–or at least will not suffer the kind of damages that might be inflicted in an honest court. That leaves the other attorney to convince his client that it’s best not to push too hard–that justice really is being done, even though it might not look that way.
Experience has taught me that the stronger your case, the more likely you are to be the victim of such a con game. That tells me that Hilda and Larry Clark probably had very strong cases–both in Hall County, Georgia, and in Baldwin County, Alabama.
Many lawyers, under pressure from corrupt judges, would have convinced the Clarks to either give up on their cases or accept offers that amounted to a fraction of what the cases were worth. If that didn’t work, many lawyers would have withdrawn from the cases, keeping the Clarks’ money and leaving them to seek other counsel or fend for themselves.
Jennifer Paige Clark apparently did not treat her clients that way. And she certainly was not going to treat her parents that way.
By refusing to go along with the game that many lawyers are expected to play, did Jennifer pay with her career–and her life. We think the answer is yes.