The losing lawyer in last summer’s acrimonious, heavily publicized child custody battle between pop star Usher Raymond and his ex-wife launched a crusade against the Fulton County judge who ruled in Usher’s favor that has escalated to encompass the entire Fulton Superior bench.
In the seven months since Fulton Superior Court Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane awarded custody of the ex-couple’s two young children to Usher, Tameka Raymond’s lawyer, Lisa West, has successfully pushed the judge to recuse from eight cases in which the lawyer is counsel, starting with Lane’s surprise recusal from the Raymond case in December. West had repeatedly asked the judge to recuse from the Raymond case before then, saying she was biased in favor of opposing counsel because of his contributions to her campaign, but Lane had turned her down, saying there was no legal basis.
In her recusal orders, the judge has accused West of improperly digging into her personal affairs and strongly suggested that several of the lawyer’s clients retained her only to have their cases reassigned out of Lane’s courtroom—in effect, forum-shopping. Now West has moved to disqualify the entire Fulton Superior Court bench from hearing the cases Lane has recused from in a motion filed last week. Lane is one of three judges who hear family law cases exclusively on the 20-member bench.
West also asked the new judge in the Raymond case, John Goger, to strike language from Lane’s recusal orders that West says prejudices replacement judges against her clients.
The offending language was "intended to taint the movants’ cases and to affect the movants’ ability to obtain a fair and impartial adjudication of their cases" by the other Fulton Superior judges, West said in the March 27 motion.
"Judge Lane’s actions constitute nothing less than those of an advocate, a witness for the opposing parties; thus, the offending portions of each recusal order must be stricken and the entirety of the Superior Court of Fulton County bench must be disqualified in presiding over each [of] the above-referenced cases," the motion said.
West accused the judge of favoring Usher Raymond’s lawyer, high-profile divorce lawyer John Mayoue, right after Lane awarded custody to Usher on Aug. 24. West alleged in a succession of recusal motions, new trial motions and media interviews that Mayoue’s assistance with the judge’s 2008 re-election campaign swayed Lane to rule in favor of his client.
Lane refused to recuse, saying in her orders that West had provided no evidence that Mayoue’s involvement in her campaign exceeded what is allowed by law—that Mayoue’s former firm, Warner, Mayoue, Bates & Nolen, hosted a fundraiser for Lane in 2008, which is disclosed in her public campaign filings.
West insisted there was more to the story—saying that other lawyers have told her Mayoue was part of Lane’s "unofficial" campaign committee. She has not produced evidence to substantiate this claim.
In 2011, the state Supreme Court revised rules about when a judge should recuse from a campaign contributor’s case. The rules suggest that a variety of factors be taken into consideration as possible grounds for recusal, but there is no mandatory requirement that a judge recuse.
West intervened in the probate case of Lane’s recently deceased sister, Eunice Zenobia Taylor, in December, seeking documents from Taylor’s files that she claimed could show Mayoue helped with the judge’s re-election effort beyond what has been disclosed.
The next day, Dec. 13, the judge abruptly recused from the Raymond case and another case in which West was counsel, Smith v. Smith.
West had asked Lane to recuse from the Smith case three weeks earlier, again accusing Lane of favorable bias toward opposing counsel—this time Richard Nolen, another name partner at Warner, Mayoue, Nolen & Bates at the time of the firm’s 2008 fundraiser for Lane. Again the judge refused, saying there was no legal basis.
In both of the December recusal orders Lane said there was no legal reason to recuse but that she was doing so because of West’s actions: "Ms. West recently made inappropriate use of the Court’s personal email account and has made false and inappropriate allegations in connection with the Court’s recently deceased sister."
West wants that sentence struck from the recusal orders for the Raymond and Smith cases and from the six recusal orders the judge has written since then.
In last week’s motion, West said the judge had no evidence that she had made "inappropriate use" of the judge’s personal email or that she’d made "false and inappropriate allegations" about the judge’s deceased sister.
"Ms. West vehemently denies these allegations," the lawyer wrote in the motion.
West asked that another sentence appearing in Lane’s recusal orders for two subsequent cases also be struck: "In the present situation there are certainly indications that the respondent chose to retain Ms. West as additional counsel simply to obtain reassignment of the case."
In one of the cases, Warbington v. Bankston, West simultaneously entered an appearance and filed a recusal motion for the mother on Jan. 24, after the final order had been entered and an initial hearing on post-trial motions had been held. Lane granted West’s motion two weeks later.
In the other case, Gram v. Gram, the lawyer became counsel for the father and filed a recusal motion on Feb. 25. Lane recused the next day.
In the most recent case from which Lane has recused, Meeks v. Meeks, West entered an appearance for the ex-wife and filed a recusal motion on March 8. Lane recused on March 14.
Lane first warned that West could use her recusal from the Raymond and Smith cases to judge-shop just three weeks later, when she complied with West’s motion to recuse from the next case, Terrett v. Terrett.
In that case, which West entered Nov. 15, West asked the judge to remove herself for bias against West personally instead of bias in favor of opposing counsel, citing the judge’s recusal orders in the Raymond and Smith cases.
In her recusal order, Lane countered West’s accusation of bias by again alluding to West’s intervention in the probate case. The judge said she was recusing because of that behavior, calling it "an inappropriate effort to publicly exploit the loss of a close member of the Court’s family" that "may cause reasonable members of the public to question the Court’s ability to decide this matter impartially."
The judge warned that West could use her voluntary recusals in the Raymond and Smith cases to judge-shop: "The Court is gravely concerned at the prospect of creating a situation in which any litigant before it who has been disappointed with an interim decision can try their luck with another Judge simply by retaining Ms. West," Lane wrote in the Jan. 3 order. "At the present time, however, Ms. West’s conduct has made this necessary."
Lane declined to be interviewed because the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges not to comment publicly on cases before them, or that were before them and are still pending, but she responded to emailed questions through her attorney, George Lawson.
"I decline to speculate on Ms. West’s motives in entering an appearance in several cases at a point after substantive orders have been entered," Lane said in Lawson’s reply email. "To speak more generally, however, I am concerned that this type of situation may present a serious concern for the administration of justice as well as for the parties involved. Hypothetically, if an attorney enters a case for the purpose of prompting a recusal and reassignment, such a course of action triggers all the problems inherent in forum-shopping."
The new judge must handle post-trial motions in an unfamiliar case and delays occur. "In many cases the client may incorrectly believe that they are likely to have a second trial—a "do over"—with the new Judge," Lane added.
In an interview, West reiterated that Lane’s recusal from the Raymond and Smith cases has created a situation where the judge must recuse from all of her cases.
"The result has been that Judge Lane has no choice—she has to recuse herself. It’s an interesting result," West said. "What the result could be is that people hire me because they don’t want to have that issue with John Mayoue or anyone from his former firm of Warner, Mayoue, Bates & Nolen—they do not want to have to deal with any of the issues of questioning whether there is a special relationship."
She added that her intent was to advocate for her clients, not to pick a fight with Lane. "She says it’s judge-shopping to hire me, knowing there is a recusal issue," West said. "I follow the letter of the law."
Usher ruling sparks bias claim
West and her client, Tameka Raymond, first accused the judge of favoring Usher’s lawyer in a recusal motion filed six days after Lane awarded primary custody to Usher on Aug. 24.
A recusal motion must be filed no more than five days after learning of the basis for recusal, according to the Georgia Uniform Superior Court Rules.
West said she did not learn of Mayoue’s "special relationship" with the judge until the day after the ruling, which had been heavily covered by the media. She said another lawyer called to inform her that Mayoue had been part of Lane’s "executive campaign committee" because the lawyer "was so shocked" by the decision.
"That’s when I found out about the unofficial campaign committee," West said, adding that she received more calls and started making inquiries. "Everyone knew he had a very prominent role," she said.
West filed three motions for a new trial, saying the "special relationship" caused Lane to ignore evidence at the 11-day trial that West’s client was an excellent, involved parent and that Usher had no time for his children.
After the Raymonds’ divorce in 2009, also in Lane’s courtroom, the couple shared custody of their two boys. Lane modified their divorce to grant physical custody to Usher in her Aug. 24 ruling, but the couple still have joint legal custody.
Usher petitioned the judge to modify the shared custody in January 2011, saying he was concerned about his ex-wife’s parenting and claiming she did not spend much time with the boys. She in turn accused him of not being around for the boys because of his busy travel schedule as a pop star.
The first four pages of Lane’s Aug. 24 custody modification order, spelling out her reasons for awarding custody to Usher, are redacted to protect the Raymonds’ privacy. Lane wrote in the unredacted part that her decision followed the findings in psychological evaluations and the guardian ad litem’s report.
"There is no question in my mind, as the guardian, that Judge Lane made a decision that was in the best interest of those kids," said Daniel Bloom, a partner at Pachman Richardson.
Bloom has performed this role for 18 years, saying he’s handled or supervised more than 1,000 such cases. Bloom said his office spent more than 200 hours over a 16-month period investigating the Raymond case and preparing a custody recommendation for the court. The report summarizing his findings is sealed.
Bloom added that he requested psychological investigations of both parents, which are also sealed, and used them in formulating his recommendation.
The judge cited Bloom’s conclusion that "even though Mr. Raymond has a hectic and demanding schedule, he is far more able to provide the children with consistency and stability than is Ms. Raymond."
Lane’s Oct. 30 order denying West’s three motions for a new trial provides more information: "As the Court described in its [Aug. 24] order, witness after witness testified about episodes that revealed Ms. Raymond’s lack of interest in parenting and many poor decisions she made during the course of her parenting," it said.
The new trial motions "completely failed to address any of the troubling evidence summarized," Lane wrote, referring to the redacted part of the custody modification order.
It was this evidence that "prompted the Court to change primary custody," Lane wrote in a footnote. She added that Tameka Raymond "appears to have little involvement with her children when she is with them. This pattern is particularly problematic in light of the difficulty she has in her relationships with her children’s caregivers and the frequency with which they turn over."
While both parents used nannies, Tameka Raymond used substitute caregivers to "an inordinate degree," the footnote said, while Usher Raymond has maintained a "positive, stable" relationship with a sole nanny and spends time with his children.
Evidence besides fundraiser?
West asked the judge to recuse herself four times in the two months after the custody ruling. Each time Lane turned her down, writing in her orders that West had provided no evidence showing Mayoue had any involvement in her 2008 re-election campaign beyond his former firm’s fundraiser.
Lane reported the fundraiser as an in-kind donation of $1,278 in her March 2008 campaign disclosure report to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. The limit set by the agency for a person or entity’s contributions to judicial candidates in nonstatewide races is $2,500.
Mayoue is not listed as an individual contributor or a member of Lane’s campaign committee in the report.
Mayoue declined to comment on West and Tameka Raymond’s allegations but on behalf of Usher he entered a strongly worded response on Sept. 5 to their initial recusal motions’ charge of bias.
"Respondent’s assault on the integrity of the Court, after the rendition of a verdict fully supported by 11 trial days of strong, compelling evidence, constitutes a continuum [sic] of her vile and unsupportable claims that every person who dared testify against her, including expert and lay witnesses—and now the very judge who ruled upon the evidence—is biased and tainted," the response said.
Mayoue noted that lawyers make up most of the contributors to judges’ campaigns. About 75 firms and lawyers contributed to the Warner, Mayoue, Bates & Nolen fundraiser for Lane, the response said, including a firm, Weinstock and Scavo, where one of Tameka Raymond’s lawyers, Hennen Ehrenclou, had worked at the time.
Warner, Mayoue, Bates & Nolen contributed to other family law judges’ campaigns as well, and the contributions are documented in those judges’ campaign disclosure reports, the response said.
"Lawyers and law firms routinely contribute to the election and re-election campaigns of both trial and appellate judges" in Georgia, Mayoue continued. If judges were disqualified from cases involving campaign contributors, "it would require the wholesale disqualification of this Courts family division."
The 40 campaign donors listed in Lane’s March 2008 filing are all lawyers—and most handle family law.
"Mr. Mayoue did not personally make any financial contribution to Judge Lane’s reelection campaign, nor did he provide any other hands-on assistance for it," Lawson said in the email to the Daily Report, adding that Mayoue was "one of many attorneys who agreed to be publicly identified as supporting Judge Lane’s candidacy."
West said it was "a very weak argument" for Mayoue to say the contribution to Lane was from his former firm, not himself. "What that means is he can hide behind the firm," she said. "He’s a name partner of a firm. The firm is him. He is the firm."
According to Canon 3E of the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct, campaign contributions are considered disclosed as soon as they are publicly filed, making West’s claim moot that she did not find out about the fund­raiser until after Lane’s custody ruling.
But West said Mayoue’s campaign contribution per se was not the basis for her recusal motion.
She said it was "very significant" that Mayoue, a prominent divorce lawyer, hosted a fundraiser for Lane and publicly supported her as an "unofficial member of her campaign committee," because his support may have deterred other candidates from running against Lane.
"When it has that kind of potential to scare off potential candidates, it has to be disclosed," West said, adding that in 2008 it was important for Lane to raise a big war chest and attract prominent supporters early in the race to ward off potential challengers. She explained that the 2008 campaign followed a hotly contested race in 2004 for Lane, when she was challenged by a well-funded opponent, Mark Spix.
Lane ran unopposed in 2008 and again in 2012. The judge raised $29,000 for her 2008 election campaign and spent $8,570, according to her campaign filings. No contributions are reported in Lane’s 2012 filings.
Quest for evidence
Seeking evidence of Mayoue’s involvement, West subpoenaed Lane’s 2008 campaign chair, Anita Wallace Thomas, a partner at Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough, and directed her to bring any documents, including letterhead and stationery "evidencing or reflecting the names of the members, official and unofficial, and supporters" of the campaign, to a hearing set for Sept. 11, 2012.
The lawyer said no documents were forthcoming. "I got nothing, not one piece of paper, from Lane’s campaign," she said.
At the hearing, West told the judge the evidence linking Mayoue to her campaign was not in the public filings and moved for Lane to reconsider her two previous recusal motions, according to the judge’s order turning her down.
A petitioner motioning a judge to recuse for bias must supply an affidavit asserting "facts and reasons" for the claim, according to Rule 25 of the Uniform Superior Court Rules for Georgia.
The affidavit should be "definite and specific as to time, place, persons and circumstances," it says. "Allegations consisting of bare conclusions and opinions shall not be legally sufficient to support the motion or warrant further proceedings."
West’s affidavit said that a lawyer, whom she didn’t name, told her on Aug. 25 that Mayoue was part of the judge’s 2008 re-election committee.
Rule 25.1 says that if an affidavit is sufficiently factual, the judge should refer the recusal motion to another judge for a hearing.
Lane cited Rule 25.1 in her orders denying recusal but ruled that West’s affidavit attesting to Mayoue’s involvement was not sufficient to support the facts asserted because it was based on "information and belief" rather than personal knowledge.
Another claim in West’s recusal motions—that Mayoue "garnered" 82.7 percent of the contributions to Lane’s campaign in the three months before she announced her candidacy and 42 percent of the total contributions—was not supported by facts, Lane ruled.
On that basis, she denied the recusal motions outright, without referring the bias claims to another judge.
West tried one more time, filing a third recusal motion on Sept. 19, which she called a "Renewed Motion for Reconsideration of Denial of Motion for Recusal Based Upon Court’s Misstatement of Basis for Initial Motion for Reconsideration."
This motion said West had "repeatedly stated" at the Sept. 11 hearing that the basis for recusal stemmed not only from Mayoue’s fundraising for Lane but also because he was a member of the campaign support committee.
This "special relationship" with Mayoue helped Lane keep her judgeship, so it should have been disclosed, the motion said.
West asked Lane in the motion to have another judge hear the recusal motion. Lane turned her down.
At that point, West and her client turned their attention to an appeal.
David Webster, an appellate specialist, entered an appearance as counsel for Raymond on Oct. 4 and filed a notice of appeal on Nov. 28.
Webster said the allegation that Mayoue helped with Lane’s campaign over and beyond the fundraiser will be a basis for the appeal.
"If contributing to a judge’s campaign were the only issue, then we wouldn’t be fighting this," Webster said. "The extent of the involvement—that’s the issue."
Webster said Lane should have turned the recusal motions over to another judge for a hearing. His client wants a "full hearing" on the bias claim, he added.
Asked what evidence there is for this, Webster replied that he was not involved in the development of the evidence. "We’re going to have to see how that plays out," he said.
Asked if the claim, made in the new trial motions, that the judge ignored positive evidence of Tameka Raymond’s parenting and negative evidence of Usher’s will be part of the appeal, Webster said he had "not decided what other issues we might press on appeal."
CBS story, probate intervention
Meanwhile, West and Tameka Raymond’s accusations that Lane was biased were broadcast by the local CBS affiliate on Oct. 29, in a story that was widely picked up by entertainment blogs and websites.
The story, billed as an exposé, revealed that "some Georgia judges" do not disclose their relationships with the attorneys appearing before them. It featured an interview with West repeating her allegations that Lane awarded Usher custody in the Raymond case because of the "special relationship" with Mayoue.
The story was distorted and amplified by the celebrity news sites that picked it up. Hip-Hop Morning’s re-hash of its interview with West used the headline "Usher lawyer John C. Mayoue and Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane are investigated for judicial bribery."
"See—Tameka ain’t crazy!" Hip-Hop Morning informed readers. "The same judge who gave [Usher] parental control in their custody battle had a lot of help keeping her job from HIS lawyer."
The CBS story is what sparked West’s intervention in the probate case of Lane’s sister, Taylor, who died last year. West said that after the story aired, one of Taylor’s sons called her, saying he’d seen it and thought his mother’s files might contain Lane’s campaign records.
That prompted West on Dec. 12 to petition Fulton Probate Court to preserve Taylor’s files. At the time Lane and her nephews were disputing who should administer Taylor’s estate.
West explained in an interview that she was trying "to obtain documents from another source that Judge Lane did not have control over," after the judge’s campaign manager did not produce the evidence she sought.
"I understood that the sister had worked on Judge Lane’s campaign and that she had hard copies and computer records from it," West said. "So I am asking the court to order everyone not to destroy it."
In West’s third-party motion, she also asked that Fulton’s probate judge, Pinkie Toomer, recuse herself from ruling on it because Toomer and Lane were friends. To support this, West attached a copy of a personal email from Lane to her nephews, which West said one of them forwarded to her.
"I’m sure that upset her, but it was necessary," West said.
Lane recused herself from the Raymond and Smith cases the next day. Toomer recused herself from the probate case on Jan. 25.
The judge said via Lawson’s email that her sister was a telephone operator in Maryland in 2008, and her only involvement in Lane’s campaign was a visit a few days before the election to pitch in with "get out the vote" efforts.
"She had no reason to possess any of my campaign records, to contact any lawyers or to organize any fundraisers, for me or for any other candidate," Lane said in the email.
"I will simply note that it has been uniquely hurtful to have a litigant conduct a fishing expedition through the Probate Court proceedings regarding the sister I lost so suddenly last spring," Lane added in the email.
West’s well-publicized claims that Lane is biased have been seized on by some litigants in Lane’s courtroom unhappy with how their cases are going.
Basketball star Allen Iverson filed a motion for Lane’s recusal from his divorce case in late December, claiming the judge was biased in favor of his estranged wife’s lawyer—Mayoue—which was reported in a TMZ story widely disseminated on celebrity news websites.
Lane denied Iverson’s recusal motion for lack of evidence. The Iversons subsequently settled on Jan. 22, according to court filings.
In a contentious child custody-modification case before Lane, Miller v. Miller, the ex-husband, who is representing himself, emailed his ex-wife’s lawyer on March 8 and gave her four days to either agree to his settlement offer or make a "reasonable" counter-offer.
"If you do not, I will be hiring Ms. Lisa West. I have spoken with her multiple times. I am sure you know what that means," the email said, according to court documents. The ex-husband is due to appear before Lane on April 8 for a contempt hearing in the case.
He elaborated in a follow-up email: If the ex-wife did not respond, it said, "I will be retaining Lisa West and the process of finding an unbiased judge will begin."
Lane’s lawyer, Lawson, raised the question in his email of how West’s still-unfolding moves to take the judge off her cases will play out. "Ms. West may be in a position to make new law in Georgia, should some appellate court agree that a litigant who has been disappointed with an interim decision of a trial court can try his/her luck with another judge simply by retaining Ms. West," Lawson wrote. "I wait with bated breath for such a ruling from some appellate court."
So far, West has been able to force Lane’s recusal from any case the lawyer enters. And now she is asking that the entire Fulton Superior bench be disqualified from those cases as well.
In a question that proved prescient, Lane asked how far West would take her accusations of bias during a recusal hearing for the Smith case last November.
Lane asked West if her opposing counsel had provided any campaign support to the other two judges on the Fulton Superior bench who hear family law cases—and, if so, "whether she would also seek recusal of the other Family Division judges, or whether she sought a full bench recusal," according to her order denying the recusal motion.
West’s reply is not recorded in the order. Last week, she gave the judge her answer.