Vimbai Chikomo May 9, 2016, 4:59pm


NEW ORLEANS – Two Baton Rouge 18th Judicial District judges stood before the Louisiana Supreme Court last week to address allegations of mishandling criminal cases and violating the state’s judicial code in the process.

Judges James Best and J. Robin Free took vastly different approaches, with the former apologizing before the court’s seven justices and Free challenging the allegations.

“Thirty years ago, as a budding attorney, I dreamed about arguing before this honorable court," Best said. "This is not exactly what I had in mind. Instead, today I stand before you humbled and humiliated, yet sorry and accountable for the poor decisions I made on a routine matter.”

Best landed in trouble for ending Antonio Garcia’s probation in 2011 without informing the state’s Attorney General’s Office, which had taken over the case after the District Attorney’s Office recused itself. Best said he chalks up his decision to “very poor judgment.”

Garcia was sentenced to five years of probation in 2009 after being convicted of indecent behavior with a juvenile. Garcia, who was a member of the church choir Best directed, only served two and a half years of his probation before Best terminated it. Neither the victim’s family nor the investigating agency was present at the hearing terminating Garcia’s probation.

The Judiciary Commission of Louisiana determined that Best violated judicial conduct rules by speaking with Garcia’s probation officer and a local police chief privately about Garcia’s motion to terminate his probation.

“On the issue of exploited communication, I truly did not realize that communication with the probation officer not the question I asked (the police chief) was improper," Best said. "I was wrong. I have learned from my errors. On the issue of not recusing myself, I have agreed by not doing so that I gave the appearance of impropriety.”

Best said that he made the worst decision in 23 years and recognizes how his failure to properly handle the case “diminished the esteem of this judiciary.”

“So I offer my deepest apology to the citizens of the 18th Judicial District," Best said. "And whatever this honorable court determines is appropriate, I will take it on the chin."

The commission recommended Best be suspended for 30 days.

The allegations against Free were more extensive. The commission found he made inappropriate comments during court hearings, including mocking female defendants appearing before him and showing bias in a case involving vehicular homicide.

This wasn’t the first time Free faced the state’s high court. He was suspended without pay in 2014 for 30 days after accepting an all-expense-paid trip from a lawyer who had won a $1.2 million settlement in a case Free had presided over.

Free’s attorney, Steve Scheckman, argued that the commission’s evidence was not “clear and convincing.” Scheckman also represented Best.

The commission recommended Free be suspended for one year.

The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision in the case within the next 12 weeks.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that ”The Court has 12 weeks to make its decision.”

 

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