NEW ORLEANS -- More than 20 years after Carol Bernofsky first filed suit for wrongful dismissal from his job as a biochemistry professor, he is still fighting what he believes is a grave injustice.
Bernofsky’s target is a federal judge he claims should have recused herself from his case because of prior links with the university he was suing. Now, Bernofsky has filed a petition asking for an impeachment investigation into U.S. District Judge Helen ‘Ginger’ Berrigan of the Eastern District of Louisiana.
He filed the petition with the Federal Judicial Center, which will decide whether to investigate the claims and whether to refer the matter to the U.S. Senate.
The case dates back to 1995 when Bernofksy first filed his wrongful dismissal suit against Tulane University. Bernofsky filed four separate but related civil suits, all of which were presided over by Berrigan. Within a six-year period, all the causes of action filed by Bernofsky were denied.
In 2000, Bernofsky discovered evidence of links between Berrigan and the university, particularly its law school. Berrigan was a board member of Tulane’s Amistad Research Center and an adjunct professor in Tulane’s law school in 1995, which is when the claims were first filed, according to Bernofsky's complaint asking for her to be recused.
Bernofsky also claimed that Berrigan was paid $5,500 by Tulane Law School to teach a summer course on the Greek island of Thessaloniki. Berrigan refused to recuse herself, a decision affirmed by the Fifth Circuit of Appeals in April 2001, finding “there was there was no error of any significance and Bernofsky presents no evidence of improper motive or defamation.”
There was a dissent from then Chief Judge Carolyn King, who wrote, “A reasonable person would view the summer teaching assignment in Greece that Tulane Law School offered to Judge Berrigan, along with $5,500 to cover her expenses, as something of a plum.”
She accepted that assignment on the eve of her decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the administrators of the Tulane educational fund, King wrote.
“Under the circumstances.....I think that a reasonable person might question her impartiality. I would reverse the judgment and remand with instructions to send the case to another judge," King stated.
Bernofsky believes his filing of the petition for impeachment will, at the very least, bring attention to what he claims was a grave injustice against him.
“This is something I have been thinking about for a very long time actually, “ Bernofsky told the Louisiana Record. “It is a test of the law after wrongful treatment.”
He is now waiting for the Federal Judicial Center to decide whether to move forward with an investigation.
“But I think really the next step would be creating pressure on the judiciary, through publicity,” Bernofsky said. “I really do not know what is going to happen. There is a chance of action because of the judge’s actions.”
Bernofsky says there are various reasons for the time lapse between the conclusion of his cases against the university and his decision to file the petition for impeachment. As the cases concluded, he was suffering from cancer.
“Then Katrina hit. We lost everything and moved to Shreveport. I then worked on other cases of people claiming to be unjustly treated,” Bernofsky said. “All that took away from thinking about this, but I finally decided to put my foot down. Once you are involved with injustice, the wound never stops bleeding, and it is still festering.”
Fifteen federal judges, including one associate justice of the Supreme Court, have faced impeachment proceedings by the Senate. Eight were convicted, three resigned before trial and four were acquitted.
The first to be convicted, in 1804, was Judge John Pickering of New Hampshire. He was convicted of mental instability and intoxication on the bench. Judge G. Thomas Porteous of the Eastern District of Louisiana was the most recent to be convicted, found guilty in 2010 of accepting bribes and making false statements on penalty of perjury.