State's high court has little tolerance for judicial misconduct, Loyola professor says

By Michael Carroll | Apr 8, 2016

NEW ORLEANS – As the cases of two 18th Judicial District judges accused of mishandling proceedings and abusing their powers head to the state Supreme Court for review next month, a Loyola University Law School professor says the state’s system to root out injudicious behavior on the bench is functioning as it should.

“There’s no doubt that judges are held to higher ethical standards today,” Dane Ciolino, who also edits the Louisiana Legal Ethics blog, told the Louisiana Record. “The Supreme Court is extremely diligent when it comes to judicial discipline, tolerating fewer instances of such conduct than in years past.”

The Louisiana Judiciary Commission recommended that Judge J. Robin Free be suspended for a year without pay. The commission’s 93-page review of Free’s temperament and problematic decisions found that he had made inappropriate comments to female defendants, joked about domestic violence issues and improperly followed court rules when he jailed defendants for contempt.

“Judge Free either lacks a fundamental understanding regarding judicial temperament and demeanor, or believes that maintaining appropriate judicial temperament and demeanor is unnecessary,” the commission stated.

Judge James Best faces a commission recommendation of a 30-day suspension without pay. The commission accused Best of improperly shortening a probation sentence of a sex offender who was an acquaintance of the judge. Best also failed to let prosecutors know about a hearing in the case, the commission stated.

Ciolino noted that in the past Free has gotten himself in trouble for taking trips with attorneys. Indeed, in 2014, Free was suspended without pay for 30 days for accepting an invitation to take trip to a hunting ranch in Texas that was paid in full by attorneys who had a case pending in Free’s court. The judge was also ordered to reimburse nearly $7,000 in costs incurred by the Judiciary Commission.

“Partly as a result of negative press, the Supreme Court has been doing whatever it can to enhance the integrity and public perception of the judiciary,” Ciolino said.

The law professor said one area where judges need to be especially careful about involves activities involving donors to their election or re-election campaigns. Often, misconduct can occur as a result of fundraising or related events.

“A significant number of complaints relate somehow to judicial campaigning and judicial fundraising,” Ciolino said.

Although the Judicial Commission and the state Supreme Court are often simply reacting to complaints by attorneys or the general public when they investigate judges, he emphasized that the public is now more savvy about the system in place for judicial complaints and is less reluctant to report problems than it used to be.

“The public is more aware than they used to be about disciplinary enforcement for judges,” Ciolino said.

In the latest case against Free, the commission said the problems went far beyond a single case or incident. “Judge Free’s misconduct is serious, not isolated, and evidenced a pattern of improper comments, injudicious behavior, and failure to follow the law,” the commission concluded.

According to the Supreme Court’s calendar, both Free and Best are scheduled for hearings before the court on May 3.

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