More than a month after being assigned her daughter's defamation lawsuit, state District Judge Janice Clark has removed herself from the proceedings and the case has been reassigned to the only one of her 14 colleagues who did not also recuse himself from the case.
Clark stepped down from overseeing a case in which Tasha Clark-Amar, her daughter, is suing a family who accused Clark-Amar of using her role as Council on Aging CEO for wrongdoing. The case was filed April 27 and the East Baton Rouge Clerk of Court's office received a recusal order Monday morning signed by Clark and 13 other judges on the 19th Judicial District Court bench.
The case now goes to state District Judge Don Johnson, whose signature is absent on his blank on the recusal order. Court records show and office staff confirmed that the case has been re-allotted to Johnson.
The Clerk of Court's office said judges are randomly assigned cases, and that it was a coincidence that Clark happened to draw her daughter's defamation lawsuit. After Clark received the case, both Clark-Amar and her attorney said they expected Clark to recuse herself.
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Johnson staying on the case is reminiscent of a case from 2013, when Clark and Johnson were the only two judges on the bench who did not recuse themselves from a case involving a fellow judge's son. In that case, the son of now-retired state District Judge Kay Bates, William Colvin, was accused of stealing guns and drugs from the evidence vault at the East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court's Office inside the 19th JDC.
After Clark and Johnson broke with the rest of the bench by not removing themselves in 2013, both the defense and prosecution in the case complained. The Louisiana Supreme Court eventually kicked all of the 19th JDC judges off the matter and appointed a retired judge from another parish.
Johnson did not return a message Monday.
In the case he is now assigned to preside over, Clark's daughter is suing the family of Helen Plummer. Plummer's granddaughter, Tracie Davis, and other family members said Clark-Amar coerced their elderly grandmother into naming the Council on Aging officer as the overseer of Plummer's estate.
Plummer was a client at the Council on Aging before she died in March. Clark-Amar has said that Plummer frequently spent time with her family and that the two of them enjoyed a close relationship. But Plummer's family said they had never heard of Clark-Amar until their grandmother died and they received a call that indicated Clark-Amar had been assigned to oversee the estate.
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In Plummer's will — drafted at the Southern University Elder Law Clinic in connection with the Council on Aging — she specified that Clark-Amar was to collect more than $120,000 over 20 years as the trustee of her estate. Davis and Plummer's other family members said it was out of character for their frugal grandmother to leave so much money to someone their family did not know. After they publicly accused Clark-Amar of wrongdoing and made headlines across Baton Rouge, Clark-Amar removed herself from being involved in the estate.
But weeks later, Clark-Amar fired back with a defamation lawsuit. She claims that the statements from Davis and Plummer's family members caused her mental and emotional distress, medical and pharmaceutical expenses, inconvenience, fear, the loss of ability to participate in normal activities and more. Clark-Amar is seeking monetary damages and attorney fees.
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The attorney representing Davis did not return a message Monday about the assignment of the case to Johnson.
LSU Law Professor Elizabeth Carter has said one factor that could make Clark-Amar's defamation lawsuit a particularly difficult one to win is her status as a public figure. Because of her public role in the community, Clark-Amar would have to prove that Davis and Plummer's other family members intentionally and maliciously were trying to spread known falsities about her, Carter has said.
The defamation lawsuit is not the only recourse Clark-Amar has taken against the Plummer family.
She separately filed a temporary restraining order against the family in City Court, in which she accused them of running "a public smear campaign" against her. City Court Judge Tarvald Smith threw out the petition for a temporary restraining order on May 10, saying Clark-Amar's attorney had no evidence that the Plummer family harassed or threatened her at her home or job. He also said City Court was not the proper venue for the proposed restraining order, given its connection to the defamation suit in the 19th JDC.
All of Clark-Amar's legal controversies have been a small sampling of the troubles that recently mounted at the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging. State auditors have said the agency may have broken the law in its quest for a dedicated tax last year. One Metro Council member is proposing to let voters decide if they want to change the dedication of the tax to go to "senior services" instead of specifically to the Council on Aging. The Southern Law Center has placed a faculty member, Dorothy Jackson, on leave while it investigates her and the Elder Law Clinic's connection to the Council on Aging. And the board's makeup was debated at the Louisiana Legislature this past session, amid an unsuccessful attempt to change it.
The Council on Aging has defended itself from the allegations by hiring lawyers and consultants to help clean up its image. They've installed a handful of new board members, adopted a conflict of interest policy, changed bylaws and more. And they have claimed that as novices pursuing the campaign for their dedicated tax, they did not know the ins and outs of the laws that govern tax elections.
Supporters of the agency have argued the criticism is overblown and they have done a good job providing services to seniors.
Last week, Clark-Amar released a letter saying the Council on Aging is vital for seniors because of the meals and other services the agency provides for seniors.
"We know that we will ultimately be absolved of the false accusations and will continue to be a beacon of light for our seniors," she wrote.