Calls for 18th Judicial District Court judge to resign

By Taryn Phaneuf | May 21, 2016

BATON ROUGE — As the Louisiana Supreme Court considers a recommendation to suspend Judge J. Robin Free for a year over allegations of misconduct, a local editorial board is calling for his resignation.

This would be Free's second suspension by the court in as many years. In 2014, after being elected to his post for another six-year term, he was suspended for 30 days without pay for taking a trip paid for by a lawyer who had won a $1.2 million settlement in a case Free had presided over. 

"It is not fair for him to remain, for both the court and the people of the three parishes the district serves," The Advocate's editorial reads.

Free, who currently serves in the 18th Judicial District Court covering West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes, has served as a district judge for nearly two decades.

In the latest complaints, he's accused of making inappropriate comments during court hearings, including mocking victims of domestic violence who appeared in his court.

Another claim accused Free of showing bias in a vehicular homicide case. The commission found that Free should have recused himself from the case after he made comments to the victim's family showing he favored the prosecution. 

He is also accused of abusing his authority when he sent two defendants to jail for contempt. Free sentenced one man, who was guilty of not wearing his seatbelt and fined $25, to five days in West Baton Rouge Parish jail for contempt. The commission found that this was improper because the man's comments and conduct were neither disrespectful nor contemptuous.

Later the same day, Free sentenced a woman to 15 days in jail for contempt. She was found guilty of disturbing the peace. The commission found that he failed to let her speak in her own defense.

After investigating the accusations, the Louisiana Judiciary Commission recommended the state Supreme Court suspend Free for a year and order him to pay $11,098 in fines.

The Supreme Court has several weeks yet to make a decision about his case.

The judiciary commission played a critical role in investigating accusations against Free, as it does with complaints against any judges, Greg Smith, a professor at the Louisiana State University Law Center, told the Louisiana Record. He compared the commission to a police department.

“There needs to be a check on the judges in addition to what the voters might do in the election of judges,” Smith said. “They might violate their oath of office; they might violate the code of judicial conduct; they might be corrupt; they might engage in crimes; they might not be good judicial officers."

The process strikes a balance between protecting judges and informing the public.

“It's done in a confidential level at first to protect the reputation of judges," Smith said. "Sometimes complaints are made and aren't warranted — just like citizens might be investigated for something they're not guilty of."

When the complaints turn out to be true and a judge has violated state statutes or the code of conduct, the commission can recommend censure, suspension with or without salary, removal from office or involuntary retirement. 

Smith thinks the process, which is mandated by the state constitution, can encourage public confidence.

“If (judges) do something wrong and it’s serious enough, the public might be pleased that there's a disciplinary process in place,” he said. “That's a good thing. It's a good thing to have this available.”

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