NEW ORLEANS Two Baton Rouge-area district judges took different approaches before the Louisiana Supreme Court Tuesday as they faced allegations of violating the state’s judicial code by mishandling criminal cases before them.
Judge James Best’s voice broke with emotion as he read his apology before the court’s seven justices in response to accusations he ended the probation of a sex offender he knew from his church choir without notifying prosecutors about a hearing in the case.
In contrast, an attorney representing Judge J. Robin Free, who like Best sits on the 18th Judicial District Court, challenged many of the findings from the state’s Judiciary Commission, which conducted the investigations into the judges.
This was Free’s second recent visit before the state’s high court. In December 2014, Free was suspended without pay for 30 days for accepting an all-expense-paid trip from a Texas lawyer who had won a $1.2 million settlement in a personal injury lawsuit before the judge.
Attorney Steve Scheckman, who represented both judges during Tuesday’s disciplinary hearings, argued the Judiciary Commission failed to present “clear and convincing evidence” supporting the laundry list of allegations against Free.
Free was accused of making flippant comments about domestic violence in court in front of both defendants and victims. The commission found he improperly held defendants in contempt of court, mocked female defendants appearing before him, and, in one case, made comments that could be viewed as showing bias in front of family members of victims in a vehicular homicide case.
The commission is asking that both judges be suspended without pay — Free for one year and Best for 30 days. The 18th Judicial District where they both preside covers the parishes of West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee.
The court has 12 weeks to make its decision following Tuesday’s proceedings.
“Please don’t do anything greater than 30 days,” Scheckman told the panel of justices during Best’s hearing. “He self-reported. Gave his complete cooperation; acknowledges his wrongdoing. He has apologized. We’ve even filed 12 affidavits from individuals speaking on his behalf. We ask that you take those into consideration.”
Best, who has served as a state district court judge since 1993, found himself in hot water for terminating the probation of Antonio Garcia in 2011 without notifying the state’s Attorney General’s Office, which had stepped in to prosecute after the District Attorney’s Office recused itself. Garcia had been convicted of indecent behavior with a juvenile and sentenced in 2009 to five years probation.
In its briefing to the Supreme Court, the commission said Best violated judicial conduct rules and provisions of the state’s Constitution by discussing Garcia’s motion to terminate his probation privately with the man’s probation officer and a local police chief before the motion was heard.
During the commission hearing Best denied being friends with Garcia, downplaying their relationship as simply acquaintances who happened to be on the same church choir.
“There’s not a day in the 4 1/2 years since this happened that I have not regretted the way I mishandled this case,” Best read from his statement. “I have beat myself up everyday. I offer my deepest apologies to the citizens of the 18th Judicial District.”
Best choked up during parts of his statement and his wife brushed away tears while sitting in the audience.
Free remained silent when he faced the justices Tuesday, opting instead to let Scheckman speak entirely on his behalf.
Scheckman started his defense for Free, who has been a district court judge for nearly 20 years, by acknowledging the commission had presented enough evidence that the judge made statements to family members of victims in a vehicular homicide case that he shouldn’t have made.
The case involved Jerry Jordan, who was accused of piloting a boat while drunk on False River in Pointe Coupee Parish and crashing into another boat. The accident resulted in the deaths of three young men.
Free was accused of walking into a room after a April 2011 court hearing where the family members of the victims were meeting with prosecutors.
The commission found that Free criticized the defense lawyer in the case for not wanting a certain trial date because the lawyer knew he had a reputation for “putting people in jail.” The commission also said in its recommendation to the court that Free showed bias toward the prosecution by saying, “I would have put him in jail for you,” which offended the victim’s mother.
“When he saw people in the room, he should have immediately exited,” Scheckman said Tuesday. But he argued that the commission failed to prove that Free’s comments demonstrated bias in the case.
Later in the hearing, Scheckman defended Free’s decision to jail two defendants after finding them in contempt in two separate cases on Sept. 12, 2001. The commission chided Free for not giving the defendants the opportunity to speak in their defense and in one case questioned whether the defendant should have been found in contempt of court, never mind worthy of putting in jail.
That defendant was a man found guilty of not wearing a seat belt and fined $25. He was held in contempt by Free after telling the judge he wouldn’t pay the fine. Free and the man had an exchange, which ended with the man saying “I thought, you know — it was my idea that the courts are the safeguard of the people’s rights, the ones that’s supposed to turn back the government when it oversteps its bounds. And I was hoping that you might see your way clear for that, but apparently not.” After that, Free immediately held the man in contempt and sentenced him to five days in the West Baton Rouge Parish jail, only some of which he served.
“I still don’t know what that man did to be found in contempt,” Justice Greg Guidry said in court Tuesday.
Scheckman argued the man was rolling his eyes, making “funny faces” and statements in an arrogant tone that implied he was smarter than Free. As for the other defendant who he put in jail that day, Scheckman asserted court transcripts show her using curse words and being obviously frustrated during proceedings.
“I spent six years in district court and there are a lot of difficult days,” Guidry responded. “If I would have sent someone to jail every time they gave me a funny look, I would have sent a lot of people to jail.”
“He should have been more specific, yes,” Scheckman responded. “But the contempt findings were valid.”
The justices spent considerable more time Tuesday asking questions about the commission’s findings that Free made inappropriate comments during domestic abuse proceedings and used slang during criminal cases to speak to defendants, including using language that could be interpreted as having racial undertones.
During one domestic violence proceeding, when a woman told the judge her husband had hit her in the eye, the briefing says Free replied — in an “affected voice” — “He popped you in the eye,” inciting courtroom laughter.
And in a separate criminal matter the commission found Free made “insensitive, discourteous and injudicious comments,” to female defendants. To one defendant, who was accused of stealing lotion from a Wal-Mart, Free asked, “What’s wrong, you was. ... What, your skin was ashy? You were ashy trying to get your skin right with some Aveeno?”
“Apparently this judge gets into a hassle with everyone he comes in contact with,” Chief Justice Bernette Johnson said. “He’s lost control of his courtroom.”
“The laughing and applause; back and forth with defendants...this is a theater,” Johnson said. “That’s not what we’re suppose to be about.”
Scheckman acknowledged Free shouldn’t have made many of the comments he did, but argued the judge wasn’t trying to provide courtroom entertainment and emphasized his client recognizes the seriousness of domestic violence.
“He punishes people; men who abuse women,” Scheckman said. “Free was too informal. He understands the effects of his words. He was not attempting to minimize how serious these cases are.”
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter @tjonesreporter.