The Texas litigator discusses the decision to speak out after a judge pulled out a gun in an open courtroom.

                           Photo by Felix Sanchez

Lauren Varnado already had her concerns about Judge David Hummel when she entered his 2nd Circuit courtroom in West Virginia back in March of 2022. She says she'd experienced his machismo, chauvinism and bullying in the past. She and her colleagues had tried unsuccessfully to get Hummel recused from their case due to a conflict of interest, but the system dictated otherwise. So as she entered the courthouse, she knew to expect a certain level of pushback. What she didn’t expect was to wind up on the wrong side of the barrel of a handgun. The judge turned her workplace – the courtroom – into a harrowing scene by pointing a Colt 45 at her.

For Varnado, managing partner of the Houston office of Michelman & Robinson and a seasoned attorney who has worked in the oil and gas industry in Texas and throughout the South for many years, dealing with bullies is all too common. “The judges, that type of corruption,” Varnado says, “it speaks to a brazenness that's disturbing. It's particularly bad in some of the rural places. It's like they aren't afraid at all.”

It turns out this wasn’t the first time Hummel had shown erratic behavior: He had multiple complaints filed against him by the West Virginia Judicial Disciplinary Counsel (JDC) over firearms in the courtroom and other ethical violations. Late last year, Hummel entered into an agreement with the JDC in which he accepted the counsel’s finding that he violated the firearm code and resigned from the bench. He also agreed not to seek judicial office in the state again. This past March, the West Virginia Supreme Court revoked his law license.

The question of workplace safety is one thing, but the nuances involved leading up to and surrounding this event are far more complex. They point to a deeper issue within the justice system about ensuring the impartiality and ethical conduct of sitting judges. “We shouldn't be discouraging counsel from coming forward with good faith questions about a judge’s potential conflicts,'' Varnado says. “If judges would disclose in the first place, this wouldn't be an issue.”

How should the recusal process be reformed? How do we ensure this type of situation doesn’t happen again? As a passionate advocate for change, Varnado believes it starts with listening to the whole story, not just the headlines.

Lawdragon: This incident with Judge Hummel sounds terrifying. Was it a difficult decision to come forward about his conduct?

Lauren Varnado: Yes. I was not going to come forward for many reasons. After the trial ended in March, it wasn't that I didn't want to report him, but there were many reasons we were scared to, especially for my co-counsel who lives in West Virginia. I had been talking to the FBI, but I didn't think anything would happen at the time, even after we reported the incident to federal authorities.

So time went on and in May an investigator for the West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission called me and said they heard something happened at our trial. They were already investigating the judge on completely different complaints and wanted to know what happened. They would need to interview not only my co-counsel, but my partner who was at trial with me that morning. And I will tell you, there were people on my team who were pretty traumatized by the whole thing, and I did not want them to have to speak to investigators. I expressed concern for my colleagues and they said I could provide sworn testimony in lieu of them having to talk to everybody. That was when I prepared my affidavit. I gave it to the JDC. And then I called the Daily Beast, who was already investigating the judge.

There is serious corruption happening in some of these courtrooms. People have complained and felt that nothing would ever happen, there were no consequences.

LD: And we’ve seen the headlines, but walk us through what led to this moment. Your team had made a motion for a recusal, correct? Because of a conflict?

LV: Yes, so he is a party to an oil and gas lease agreement with my clients. His parents receive the royalties, but when they pass, he will receive the royalty payments. It appeared to constitute a direct financial interest, a clear conflict. Not only that, but his cousin is also the lead plaintiff in a statewide class action case that I’m lead counsel on. We believed that was a potential conflict also. That's a first degree relative of his who's suing in a statewide class action, saying my client steals from people. And he can be impartial in this case?

We moved to have him disqualified. We had voluminous records of support and a signed oil and gas lease with his name on it. We certainly thought that was enough evidence, but in West Virginia, the way they do it is one judge on their Supreme Court decides. That's concerning to me. That power shouldn't be in one justice's hand. The reviewing justice found that we did not meet the standard to have Judge Hummel disqualified on the face of our motion and he ordered us to have a hearing. That's fine. But the hearing should be presided over either by justices on the West Virginia Supreme Court or by the one justice who decides the matter, but certainly not the judge you're seeking to disqualify.

We were ordered to appear before Judge Hummel after we moved to disqualify him, then had to argue to him why we believed he should be disqualified. I know every state's procedure is different, but I do think it's a broader issue that arises when you move to disqualify a judge.

LD: Right. That’s awkward to say the least. So, he decided he didn’t need to be removed. And then he held a grudge about you bringing the motion in the first place?

LV: Yes. He was so mad. He called a status conference, and the very first thing – he looked me dead in the eye and said, “Nice try.”

LD: Based on some of his comments, this judge sounded quite chauvinistic, too.

LV: Oh, yes. Absolutely, yes. My first thought when the gun was drawn – because my co-counsel, Jenni Hicks, she's a partner at Babst Calland in Charleston, West Virginia, and she's my age, a beautiful blonde woman – I looked at her like uh-oh, he's going to make us go back to chambers. My initial concern was something different. My brain went there because of his demeanor and him flashing the gun around. In a way, trying to impress, or be a big man, kind of thing. “Aren't me and my guns enough for you?”

LD: Wow. So what changes do you think we need to see to the recusal process to avoid this type of situation?

LV: There has to be a better way. I mean, how intimidating. We shouldn't be discouraging counsel from coming forward with good faith questions. If judges would disclose in the first place, this wouldn't be an issue. Maybe there needs to be more stringent disclosure rules or a reform of the review process. Because I will tell you, the responses have been overwhelming since I came forward with this. Not just about Judge Hummel, but from lawyers across the United States who have had really insane things happen in court by judges who were just bullies.

LD: It seems to be a growing conversation, about the impartiality of judges. They’re still people, after all.

LV: Right. And not every judge is doing the right thing and declining to preside over a case where they have a financial interest. It's particularly bad in some of the rural places that I practice. There is serious corruption happening in some of these courtrooms. People have complained and felt that nothing would ever happen, there were no consequences. These guys get emboldened to act worse and worse. It speaks to a brazenness that's really disturbing. It's like they aren't afraid at all.

That's really what I envisioned – fighting for justice in some way. I am really passionate about advocating for change.

LD: Has all this media attention around this incident changed anything in terms of the types of client calls you're getting?

LV: People are definitely more interested in talking to me! I am top of mind when it's a very nasty case. I'm viewed as maybe a little more on the aggressive end. I've earned some credit. But the truth of it is – that's what our client needed. They asked us to move for disqualification, so I'm going to do it. To me, it's not a tough question, but I know for a fact that there are large law firms, very respectable ones, that have been in similar situations with a client and refused to sign the motions.

LD: Stepping back a bit, what is the general mix of your practice?

LV: I represent oil and gas producers, energy companies, pipeline and midstream companies, and, at times, companies in other industries, in high stakes contract disputes, tort claims, fraud or trespass. I also help them try to avoid litigation. I do cradle to grave – or, in upstream litigation terms, a wellhead to royalty remittance – audit to make sure that the oil and gas company is complying with not only state law and regulations, but to just generally mitigate risk. I do a lot of class action defense and I'm also a complex litigator. It’s a nitty-gritty business.

LD: Is it the type of practice you imagined you would have back in law school?

LV: When I went to law school, I wanted to be a prosecutor, a DA. But then, I didn't find myself very interested in criminal law. I loved contract law and civil procedure. I did mock trial during law school and always viewed myself as being in the courtroom. I wanted to be a trial lawyer when I was 12. The blonde woman on Law & Order, who was the DA – I wanted to be her.

LD: Of course!

LD: She was amazing. That's really what I envisioned – fighting for justice in some way. I am really passionate about advocating for change. I think about the things that I've experienced and encountered, and I am passionate about those things changing. Especially for younger women who want to do what I do. And I don't think there's many of us because trial work is really hard. It’s grueling. But I want to make it easier for the next generation.

LD: Is there a formative case that you can recount, from early on in your career?

LV: Yes. In some ways it'll always be my favorite case. I was a very junior associate and I had worked so hard to become a master of the case. It had been, and this was 10 years ago, seven years of litigation and close to $400M in alleged damages, related to the production of crude oil in Syria. The plaintiffs were related to President Assad of Syria. We represented what was Shell Oil Company’s historical international affiliate, Pecten Company. Shell Oil Company discovered and were the first producers of light crude oil in Syria.

It was such an interesting case. I was second chair at the jury trial. My mentor and the head of the energy litigation team at my firm was first chair. The first witness that the plaintiffs presented at trial just so happened to be my witness. So this is a huge case, and I’m the first one out the gate to do a cross-examination.

It went great. The judge presiding over the trial was a woman and she was so smart. Patricia Kerrigan – she was honored with the distinction of Texas State Court Trial Judge of the Year for several years. I respected her a lot. We went all the way to verdict and won a full complete defense verdict. Afterwards, the judge stopped the jury to make a few remarks, with all the lawyers and parties present. On the other side, it was all older male lawyers and she made a point to say how meaningful it was to have watched me second chair in the trial.

LD: Oh wow.

LV: When she retired from the bench, she mentioned me in her speech. She said it was one of the things that she will always remember because one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers was a famous plaintiffs’ lawyer here in Texas. He has had more than a few billion dollar jury verdicts. He was the one who presented the first witness that I cross-examined. In her retirement speech, Judge Kerrigan said, “I'll just never forget the look on his face, when a young female attorney just wiped the floor with his witness.”

LD: That's amazing.

LV: In the hard times and the times when I’m discouraged, I remember her encouraging words. Particularly after the trial, she said, “You have a gift and this is what I think you should be doing – trying cases.” I still keep in touch with her.

LD: That’s so meaningful.

LV: Especially from someone you respect so much. I love to try cases. That's my passion. I love being in the courtroom, which is why I am so passionate about getting up on my soapbox and telling the truth of what happened in former Judge Hummel’s courtroom that day.

LD: You’re managing partner of the Houston office. Can you talk to me about your leadership style?

LV: I try to lead by example. We are flexible with work from home, which is certainly important to younger attorneys. You can get really high value, brilliant candidates who are looking for a little more flexibility because a lot of the large law firms won't provide that. At the same time, when thinking about coming back into the workplace and the value for young attorneys being in the office, I want to create a bit of FOMO – fear of missing out. We eat lunch together in our office at least once a week. We get together for happy hours after work. We have bigger group meetings where we openly discuss matters and cases. I want the people that work with me to want to be at work and engage in open discussion.

I do think that younger attorneys learn that way, not only from listening to it but from engaging in it. And we have a good time, we have a lot of fun.

LD: And what are you excited about at work these days?

LV: Our new head of the Dallas office, Ashley Moore. We tried cases together at my prior firm. She is a brilliant patent litigator and an electrical engineer. I don't know many women who are patent trial attorneys. If the legal industry is male-dominated, you can times that by 10 for patent law. She's literally a white whale. I am so glad that she's here. It is a testament to our firm – the only firm that I know of, where all our Texas offices are run by women. Women are running Texas right now!