Supreme Court rules against disbarment for judge who was removed from office due to federal probe

Kyle Barnett Nov. 2, 2012, 11:28am

Joan Benge

NEW ORLEANS – The Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled that Joan Benge may practice law in the state after a temporary suspension despite being removed from her elected position as a judge in the 24th Judicial District last year.

Benge was one of a few officials caught up in so-called "Operation Wrinkled Robe," a federal probe that found improper relationships between judges and attorneys in the 24th Judicial District Court. Two of Benge's peers ended up in federal prison due to the investigation.

The Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board recommended in March that Benge be disbarred due to her relationship with political supporter and plaintiff's attorney John Venezia. Two of the board members recommended a permanent disbarment while the majority recommended a disbarment that would have allowed her the chance to reapply to the bar after five years.

In the probe Benge, whose phone was tapped, was caught on tape saying that she would not have provided a settlement to one of Venezia's plaintiffs whose personal injury case she was handling he had been represented by a different attorney. Venezia's plaintiff, Philip Demma, received $4,275 in the 2001 case where he allegedly fabricated a story about cracking a tooth in a car accident.

Following the revelation Benge was removed from office by the Louisiana Supreme Court (LSC) in 2009 and gave up her law license temporarily. However, she was not charged with a crime.

In the Oct. 16 ruling the LSC affirmed that Benge's conduct was unethical, but was atypical of the rest of her professional career.

"Her award was not based upon the evidence presented at the trial of the matter, but rather, was influenced by her relationship with and bias and partiality for other individuals," the judgement read in part.

The LSC concluded that the sanction in cases such as Benge's is ordinarily disbarment, but that the committee "found no aggravating factors present."

The judgment found "character witnesses all gave uncontradicted and credible testimony about respondent's personal generosity and community involvement as a citizen and her competence and integrity as a judge and an assistant district attorney."

Instead of disbarment Benge was given an 18-month retroactive suspension of her law license by the court, which means in five months she will again be eligible to practice law in Louisiana.

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