NEW ORLEANS – A West Baton Rouge judge has been suspended for 30 days by the Louisiana Supreme Court after it was revealed he had taken an all expenses paid hunting trip from a Texas attorney who had a $1.2 million personal injury case settled in his court only a week prior.
Judge J. Robin Free, who has been a judge in the 18th Judicial District covering West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes, since first assuming office in 1997, was suspended from the bench for a 30-day period.
Plaintiffs attorneys David Rumley and Joe Ritch of the Corpus Christi, Texas law firm of Wigington, Rumley, Dunn & Ritch hired Port Allen attorney Antonio “Tony” Clayton as local counsel on the case who was well known to Free.
The case involved injuries that an oil field worker received while on the job.
“Mr. Clayton is an Assistant District Attorney for the 18th JDC, as well as a private attorney, and regularly appears before Judge Free as counsel of record in various civil and criminal cases,” the Louisiana Supreme Court opinion reads.
According to the Supreme Court opinion the oil worker's case was settled on March 24, 2010 and only a week later on April 1, 2010 Free traveled on a private jet with Clayton, who invited him on the trip, and others to a ranch owned by Rumley where Free stayed free of charge and went on turkey hunt.
The Supreme Court ruled that Free’s behavior violated judicial canons stating “a judge should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities.”
While Clayton and Free maintained that Free only went on the trip to advise Clayton about the possible purchase of a ranch, the Judiciary Commission of Louisiana found that testimony taken of the trip’s participants was “not entirely credible.” However, the Commission did not find that Free accepting trip had any involvement in his role in the settlement the week earlier.
The Commission credited Free for admitting the trip was improper.
“Judge Free later acknowledged in post-hearing proceedings before the Commission that the Texas trip was ethically improper and that he did in fact receive a benefit from the trip,” the Supreme Court opinion stated. “Judge Free also accepted responsibility for his actions, apologized for his misconduct in taking the Texas trip, and assured the Commission that such misconduct will never be repeated.”
In addition to the 30 day suspension Free is being ordered to reimburse and pay to the Commission $6,723.64 in hard costs.
Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, questioned the length of the suspension.
"Is a month long suspension really the appropriate sanction for a judge who has (by the court’s own admission) 'harmed the integrity of and respect for' the judiciary?," Landry said. " The stunning and recurrent lack of good judgment displayed by some members of the Louisiana judiciary is truly troubling, as is the lack of discipline and oversight exercised by the Louisiana Supreme Court when matters such as this surface."
Landry said incident sheds light on broader issues in the Louisiana judicial system.
"Simply put, we need reform. If the judiciary is unwilling or unable to hold themselves to a high standard of ethical conduct, then we must call on the governor and the legislature to hold them to that standard. Improving transparency and accountability throughout the judiciary are a must," she said.