Trial By (Gun) Fire
Headlines drawing attention to the scourge of guns and gun violence in the U.S. are being published on a seemingly daily basis. Yet despite the epidemic in this country of people with guns gone wild, I never imagined that I’d ever be staring down the barrel of a pistol myself. Even more unimaginable: being threatened with a weapon—not in a dark deserted alley or in the midst of a robbery—but by a judge in a court of law. It sounds crazy, I know, but believe it or not, that’s exactly what happened to me this past spring.
Much has been reported about my March 2022 trial before Circuit Court Judge David W. Hummel Jr., who pulled his Colt .45 handgun and pointed it at me and my co-counsel in his New Martinsville, West Virginia courtroom. People, Vanity Fair, The Daily Beast and CBS and NBC News are but a few of the media outlets that’ve covered the story. I’ve been interviewed ad nauseam about the confrontation but have never written about it myself. Until now. Here’s my first-person account.
A Case of Real Consequence . . . and Conflict
Back in January 2020, I was retained by EQT Corporation, the nation’s largest natural gas producer, to step in for prior counsel and defend the company in a lawsuit in which the plaintiffs sought hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. By way of background, property owners, like the plaintiffs, typically retain rights to the minerals that lay under their land. These individuals can sign leases with gas companies, which provide for payments (or royalties) on their interests in the oil and gas extracted from their parcels. At the heart of the case before Judge Hummel were the plaintiffs’ royalty rights.
Not only did my team and I begin our participation in the EQT case midstream, Judge Hummel did as well, taking over the case in 2021 from Judge Jeffrey Cramer, who was recused for having an oil and gas lease with EQT. But soon after Judge Hummel was seated, we discovered that he too owned an interest in an EQT oil and gas lease. To make matters worse, Judge Hummel’s cousin was (and remains) the lead plaintiff in a pending statewide class action lawsuit over similar oil and gas royalties.
Given his conflict of interest, we moved in February 2021 to disqualify Judge Hummel, who wouldn’t agree to recuse himself from the litigation. Remarkably, the former Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court ordered us to appear before Judge Hummel to argue why he himself couldn’t preside over the lawsuit. That’s right, Judge Hummel officiated over his own disqualification hearing, a proceeding he wasn’t at all happy about. After that hearing and without explanation, the West Virginia Supreme Court denied our motion and ordered that Judge Hummel wasn’t conflicted. He remained on the case and his anger and resentment from that point forward—toward me, my co-counsel, and our entire defense team—was palpable.
Get the F*ck Out!
Even before Judge Hummel took over the case, it was no walk in the park. Judge Cramer set an in-person jury trial to begin in September 2020, with COVID-19 raging and long before the availability of vaccines.
Pandemic notwithstanding, my team and I prepared for trial, taking about 20 depositions over Zoom, and then traveling to New Martinsville for a pretrial conference on September 23, 2020, at which time Judge Cramer, without any explanation or warning, cancelled the trial for the time being. The next evening, I had a frightening encounter at a New Martinsville restaurant, the Candlelight Bar & Grill.
There, a complete stranger, who somehow knew my name, the name of my client, and the reason I was in town, sat next to me at the bar and delivered a message that couldn’t be clearer, “Get the f*ck out and don’t come back.” I immediately reported the incident to federal authorities and enlisted the protection of private security for the remainder of the case, a move that seems to have infuriated Judge Hummel.
Despite the threat to stay away, we returned to New Martinsville. After all, my team had a client to defend and nothing was going to keep us from doing so. Fast forward and we were ordered to appear before Judge Hummel, who called the parties to court for an August 2021 status conference. It was at that hearing—our first time in front of him since the unsuccessful bid for disqualification months earlier—that Judge Hummel locked eyes with me and ominously said, “nice try.”
That Fateful Day
Trial is always grueling, and that’s without the added burden of an angry judge and overt threats from locals. But that was the shadow cast over the EQT defense team when trial finally started last March.
From the first day of trial, I was on the receiving end of Judge Hummel’s verbal tirades. He even interrupted our opening statement to say how despicable I was. Actually, I’m being polite—that particular morning Judge Hummel let the profanities fly, leaving us speechless. Thankfully, this was outside the presence of the jury, which he’d briefly dismissed, but it was only the beginning.
The abuse was unrelenting throughout week one of trial and I didn’t know what to expect when Judge Hummel—who during trial sported a menacing ring depicting a human skull with rubies for eyes—ordered counsel to appear for an in-person, weekend hearing on March 12, a Saturday. It began with a surprise: our security wasn’t allowed inside the courthouse that day (previously, Judge Hummel never objected to my detail attending trial, always without weapons, which were left inside their vehicles). But on March 12, a clearly agitated Judge Hummel questioned why security was necessary since he had, in his words, “lots of guns . . . bigger ones too."
After making that declaration, Judge Hummel did the unthinkable and pulled out his Colt .45. To be clear, Judge Hummel being armed wasn’t a shocker to me—he had previously walked around the courthouse with his robe unzipped, gun holstered to his hip for all to see. What stopped me in my tracks is what came next.
Like a scene from a movie, Judge Hummel scanned the room, waiving his pistol for effect, before setting it down on the bench and then slowly and deliberately rotating the weapon until the barrel was directed squarely at me and my co-counsel. It remained that way for the duration of the hearing. To say it was outrageous is an absolute understatement, and I made a report to the FBI right away.
The Aftermath and Moral of the Story
Undeterred, I sat at counsel table bright eyed and smiling when the trial resumed the following Monday morning. For his part, Judge Hummel seemed—at least to me—to be taken aback. Not long after, based upon critical admissions from plaintiffs’ witnesses during cross examination, the case settled on terms that remain confidential, but highly favorable for EQT.
Intimidation be damned, my team and I showed up to court each and every day and fought diligently on behalf of our client. That was our duty, and threats—blatant and otherwise—weren’t going to stop us.
While a positive outcome signals a job well done, there’s still work to be done. Corruption within the legal bar and the judiciary can never be tolerated and all litigants must be given equal access to justice in West Virginia and beyond. It’s the duty of every a licensed attorney and practicing member of the bar to advocate toward that end.
For my part, I continue to cooperate with federal authorities and the West Virginia Judicial Investigative Commission in their investigations of Judge Hummel. When called upon to testify and tell the truth, I’ll do so, regardless of the repercussions.
Threats, intimidation, and even a Colt .45 handgun didn’t keep me from fighting the good fight on behalf of EQT in West Virginia, and they won’t ever impede my zealous representation of clients anywhere else—that I can guarantee.
Lauren Varnado is the managing partner of the Houston office of Michelman & Robinson, LLP, a renowned national law firm based in Los Angeles. She is a sought-after, award-winning litigator and head of the firm’s energy practice.