Two state judges in the 18th Judicial District are facing possible sanctions by the Louisiana Supreme Court on allegations they mishandled criminal cases and abused their judicial authority.
Judge J. Robin Free is accused by the state’s Judiciary Commission of making joking comments about domestic violence as defendants arrested on those charges appeared before him, using mocking language with female defendants, improperly holding defendants in contempt and jailing them without following Supreme Court rules, and, in one case, speaking to family members of victims in a vehicular homicide case when the defendant and his lawyer were not present.
Judge James Best — who like Free is a veteran on the bench — is accused of cutting short the probation of a sex offender he knew casually from his church choir without notifying prosecutors about a hearing in the case.
The commission is asking that both judges be suspended without pay — Free for one year and Best for 30 days.
Both Free and Best are set to appear before the state’s Supreme Court on May 3, according to the court’s docket. They preside over cases in the 18th Judicial District, which covers the parishes of West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee.
An attorney representing both judges said in a statement that it would be “ethically inappropriate” to comment at this time because the findings are still pending.
Next month will mark the second time in two years Free, who has served as a district court judge for nearly 20 years, faces disciplinary action from the Louisiana Supreme Court.
In December 2014, Free was suspended without pay for 30 days for accepting an all-expense-paid trip from a Texas attorney whose client was awarded a $1.2 million settlement in a personal injury lawsuit tried in the judge’s court.
This time, the commission, a nine-member board that considers complaints against judges, filed four counts accusing Free of violating the Code of Judicial Conduct and the state’s Constitution, suggesting that he not only be suspended but also pay the commission $11,098 in fines.
One set of charges against Free involves criminal and civil cases against Jerry Jordan, who was accused of piloting a boat while drunk on the False River in Pointe Coupee Parish and crashing into another boat. The accident resulted in the deaths of three young men. Jordan was charged with vehicular homicide, while families of the victims also sued him.
After a court hearing in April 2011, Free is accused of walking into a room where the victims’ family members sat with District Attorney Ricky Ward and other prosecutors. The charges in the more than 90-page brief outlining the allegations against the judge say he criticized the defense lawyer in the case for not wanting a certain trial date, saying the lawyer didn’t want him to preside in the case because of his reputation for putting “people in jail.” The brief said Free also showed bias toward the prosecution when he said “I would have put him in jail for you,” which offended one of the victim’s mother.
In a separate civil matter related to the same case, Free is accused of stopping the deposition of a witness whose testimony was highly favorable to the defendant.
The commission found that Free should have recused himself from all proceedings related to the cases after he made the inappropriate comments in front of the victim’s families.
Free tried to explain his attendance at the meeting by saying he was unaware prosecutors were meeting with the victims’ family, saying he entered the room to get coffee.
At his hearing before the Judiciary Commission, Free was asked why he didn’t leave when he realized what was going on. Free responded: “Poor judgment. ... That would have been the appropriate course of action, just to back out.”
In two additional counts, Free is accused of abusing his contempt authority when he, on Sept. 12, 2011, had two defendants in separate cases thrown in jail without giving them the opportunity to speak in their defense.
A man found guilty of not wearing a seat belt and fined $25 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.
The charges say that was simply improper. “Free had never warned (the defendant) that he was being contemptuous or that his behavior was bordering on contemptuous,” the briefing says. “The transcript and audio CD of the trial show (the defendant’s) comment and overall conduct were not disrespectful and contemptuous.”
Later the same day, Free sentenced a woman he had found guilty of disturbing the peace to 15 days in jail on contempt charges, seemingly stemming from her saying something after he made his ruling on the original charge. The only explanation he gave the woman was, “I can’t believe you did that,” according to the charges. The commission found he failed to give her ample opportunity to explain herself.
Free also was cited for making what the charges called “inappropriate comments” as he talked in a “joking, jovial attitude toward women who had been abused by men,” and using street slang to tease defendants in other criminal proceedings.
On July 5, 2011, during the arraignment of a man charged with domestic abuse battery, Free said, “That’s a felony? Domestic abuse battery by strangulation, is she alive?”
During another man’s arraignment the same day, Free said, “So, if you choke them, that’s a felony; if you punch them in the eye, that’s a misdemeanor. If you punch ’em in the eye and then choke ’em, then you haven’t really choked them,” according to the briefing.
When another woman appeared in court in a different case to have domestic abuse charges against her husband dropped, the briefing says Free asked her, “Did he hit you or did he choke you?”
When the 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.
According to the briefing, Free was apologetic for his actions when asked about them at the Commission hearing.
“It appears running my mouth has gotten me in trouble to the extent ... that I could even given the appearance about disrespect of women who are abused,” Free is quoted as saying. “It’s not what I stand for. It’s not who I am”
The charges also highlight two days when 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?”
In responses to the commission, Free said he has changed his approach in misdemeanor court and will no longer use slang or make “unnecessary comments.”
Best, according to 23-page brief filed against him, faces suspension stemming from his decision to terminate the supervised probation of a convicted sex offender he knew from church. The commission also recommended he pay $1,610 in fines.
Antonio Garcia, who was convicted of indecent behavior with a juvenile and sentenced June 25, 2009, to five years probation, filed a motion to terminate his probation with Best in May 2011.
Best, who has served as a state district court judge since 1993, is accused of conducting a hearing to terminate Garcia’s probation without notifying the state’s Attorney General’s Office, which had stepped in to prosecute after the District Attorney’s Office recused itself.
The briefing says Best also discussed Garcia’s motion to terminate his probation privately with the man’s probation officer and the Livonia Police Chief before the motion was heard — a violation of judicial conduct and a provision of state’s Constitution.
Best denied being friends with Garcia at the commission hearing. When asked to describe their relationship Best responded, “He was an acquaintance. He was a choir member in St. Mary’s Catholic Church. And that’s it.”
Best described this ordeal to the Commission as “the worst decision in 22 years as a judge.”
He also apologized and promised corrective actions at his Commission hearing. “I have labored over this for three years. It is time I put this to rest,” he said.
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.