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BOLIVIA—A Brunswick County man being sued for libel by a judge has asked the court to disqualify the judge’s attorney on the grounds he orchestrated a campaign to boost her judicial reputation and keep her “on the bench” and unopposed.
Raleigh-based First Amendment attorney Hugh Stevens filed a motion in Brunswick County Superior Court on Jan. 7 seeking the disqualification of Lonnie Williams Sr. as attorney for Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Ola Lewis in her libel lawsuit against Ed Rapp, a political activist from Boiling Spring Lakes.
The lawsuit was first filed in May 2010 for a blog posting written by Rapp concerning Lewis’ perceived judicial conduct during the campaign for then-candidate State Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Southport. Following a judgment in favor of Rapp in 2011, Lewis appealed to the court of appeals—from which a split decision was issued that allowed the matter to go before a jury.
A jury trial is scheduled Jan. 22 in Brunswick County Superior Court. (See related story.)
The motion asks for Williams’ removal as Lewis’ attorney for several reasons, including Rapp’s contention “Mr. Williams doggedly pursued his efforts to rehabilitate Judge Lewis’ reputation,” making him a potential witness for Rapp.
The motion also claims Williams sought political contributions from attorneys for Lewis’ re-election efforts.
With actual malice at stake and Lewis seeking damages for such in the case, Stevens argues Lewis can’t prove her reputation was damaged by Rapp because “her judicial reputation is far from impeccable.”
According to documents filed with the Jan. 7 motion, Williams wrote an email to a group of attorneys, saying, “If you are receiving this for the first time, please take the time to read through the entire email. It will give you a quick understanding of what we are about. After 55 years of practicing [law], I decided that I had found a more important job: To keep Judge Lewis not only on the bench, but unopposed.”
In an email thread included with Stevens’ motion, Williams sent a message to 33 recipients on Nov. 23, 2009. In it he reports the addresses of 12 attorneys who responded to the North Carolina Bar Association’s judicial performance evaluation survey with critical evaluations of Lewis.
“Plays favorites with certain attorneys,” Williams wrote. “Routinely dismissed cases based on the identity of the attorney involved,” Williams wrote about the negatives comments of Lewis.
“Rules in favor of the party based on who is representing them. Can’t discuss partiality without suffering the same result at a later date. Does not issue orders in a timely manner. Appears to favor attorneys and parties from her district,” Williams wrote of the negative responses.
It is not clear how Williams received the negative comments, Stevens noted, “but since the court may judicially notice that the NCBA provides judges who are the subject of judicial performance evaluations with tabulated results and copies of anonymous comments, and that Judge Lewis is copied on Mr. Williams’ message, the court may presume that she shared these comments with him, and, in the process, waived her confidentiality with respect to them.”
Stevens said the collective evidence filed with his motion, “demonstrate not only that the plaintiff’s judicial reputation is not pristine, but also that when her counsel became well aware of that fact in 2009 he undertook a determined personal campaign to dilute or reverse the effects of the adverse comments submitted to the [Bar Association] about her.
“Under these circumstances, he not only is a material witness with respect to her reputation in the judicial community; he arguably is among the best witness available to the defendant to testify truthfully about her standing in that community.
“Therefore the defendant will call him as a witness for that purposes and this court accordingly should disqualify him from serving as her advocate at trial,” Stevens wrote.
Although Lewis’ evidence presented at trial would presumably “support her contention that her reputation is that ‘of being a good judge,’ the documents attached to this motion as Exhibits B through J show that she and her counsel know that her judicial reputation is far from impeccable; to the contrary they will demonstrate that Mr. Williams, so concerned about her reputation that he orchestrated a concerted and dogged effort to shore it up by recruiting attorneys to submit favorable evaluations to the North Carolina Bar Association,” Stevens said.
In some email exchanges included with the motion Williams writes a favorable rating could replace a campaign contribution.
“Please send me a $250 check for Judge Lewis’ re-election campaign or send the rating sheet and affidavit. If you have already sent the letter to me as requested, you are exempted from this,” Williams wrote.
“There are some considerations for all of you: If we get a bushel basket of ratings and they are in the large majority high ratings, then she is likely to be unopposed when she runs for re-election next year. On the other hand, if not, she will be deemed vulnerable and will have opposition. In that event, the first people to be approached for a contribution will be those who did not send in letters,” Williams wrote.
Calls and emails to Williams seeking comment were not returned. No answer was filed in Brunswick County Superior Court in response to Stevens’ motion by Wednesday afternoon.
Reach Caroline Curran at (910) 772-6336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter at @cgcurran.