James Gill: Oddly enough, judicial antics still shock

Who would have thought we could still be shocked by the unethical antics of a federal judge in New Orleans?

In light of Tom Porteous’s impeachment, and Edith Brown Clement’s chronic freeloading, the prestige of the local bench has taken quite a hit over the past couple of years. Yet Stanwood Duval has found a new way to raise eyebrows.

Porteous became only the eighth judge ever removed by the Senate after he refined the concept of impartiality by taking money from attorneys on both sides of a trial in his court. Clement and Duval are nowhere near his league and remain secure in lifetime appointments that are forfeit only for “high crimes or misdemeanors.”

Short of that, however, they can do whatever they please, and they sure do, with their sympathies on opposite sides of the litigation arising from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Clement, who sits on the appeals court, is also on the board of a foundation bankrolled by Big Oil. Thus, she gets to swank around luxury Montana resorts gratis before returning home to write opinions in BP’s favor that strike her colleagues as eccentric.

Duval failed to disclose that he had filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for spill-related oil pollution at his Grand Isle camp at the same time as he was presiding over the criminal trial of BP engineer Kurt Mix. Grounds for the lawsuit included the very misdeeds alleged in Mix’s indictment, so Duval was clearly not rooting for the defense.

The jury in December found Mix guilty of obstruction, and sentencing is set for next month, although that might change if Duval agrees to recuse himself. Mix’s attorneys filed a recusal motion as soon as they realized how economical Duval has been with the truth. They want a new trial, and confidence in the federal justice system will be further eroded if they don’t get it.

Everything seemed on the up and up in 2012 when Mix was indicted for deleting text messages in an alleged conspiracy to conceal the true amount oil flowing into the Gulf after the rig explosion of 2010. When Mix’s case was allotted to him, Duval told counsel that he was entitled to “seek compensation from BP” but, as a federal judge, could not so “through the Deepwater Horizon Supervised Settlement Program” that had been established in a class-action suit.

Duval also revealed that his son, David, was an attorney working for Patrick Juneau, who had been appointed by another federal judge, Carl Barbier, to supervise the settlement program. Presumably impressed by such candor, defense counsel were happy for Duval to remain on the case and say they assumed he “had no plans to file any sort of lawsuit against BP.”

Suckers. Duval, if he could not participate directly in the settlement program, sure could piggyback on it. Last April, he and his wife, who also happens to be his law clerk, signed what is known as a joinder form whereby they sought compensatory and punitive damages from BP. The joinder form states, “I intervene into, join and otherwise adopt the Master Complaint for private economic losses.”

Mix’s role in the alleged scheme to mislead the public and the government over the oil flow rate figured prominently in that Master Complaint, which was fashioned by a plaintiffs’ steering committee of 15 lawyers. One of them is Calvin Fayard, an old pal of Judge Duval. Fayard’s daughter Caroline used to be Duval’s law clerk.

Alas, David Duval lost that job with Juneau, another old pal of his dad, when he was caught last year forwarding confidential emails to a cousin who works for a law firm pursuing claims against BP.

So if Clement’s instincts are pro-BP, the Duval family inclines more to the other side, and the federal courts have proved they can always find a way to achieve balance.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.