Judge Carl Barbier gets a slapdown

The SE Texas Record Jan. 24, 2012, 10:20am

We've often wondered if law schools offer special courses in demeanor to ensure that future attorneys develop that air of superiority so prevalent in their profession.

Or does it just come naturally?

Granted, we ordinary folk want to have confidence that their guidance is trustworthy. We'd be reluctant to rely on lawyers who seem unsure of themselves.

Nevertheless, that lofty attitude can get out of hand. Being treated like some kind of god day after day can go to your head.

If this is a professional hazard for lawyers, so much more so for judges.

Even lawyers defer to judges, but the expectation of deference can lead to imperiousness.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier surely overstepped himself when he imposed a 6-percent levy on the $14 billion in future settlements to be paid out by BP's Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF).

The 6 percent holdback was intended to establish a reserve fund to compensate the attorneys who comprise a plaintiffs steering committee (PSC) preparing for a fault allocation trial starting next month.

There was just one problem: The GCCF is an extrajudicial forum and the plaintiffs steering committee has no role in it.

But Judge Barbier, a onetime president of the Louisiana Trial Lawyers Association, couldn't resist the temptation to bestow an $850 million gift on PSC attorneys.

Lawyers working with the GCCF and not participating in the upcoming trial cried foul. Why should they and their clients have to subsidize the efforts of the PSC?

"It is particularly troubling that GCCF claimants who chose to stay out of court would have their payments withheld due to the claimed expense of a lengthy trial that will not even remotely benefit them," Florida Attorney General Pamela Jo Bondi objected.

With the U.S. Department of Justice also objecting to the capricious set-aside, Judge Barbier has learned the hard way that deference must be earned and not assumed.

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