NEW ORLEANS — State District Court Judge J. Robin Free, of Port Allen, showed “poor judgment” and deserves to be punished for taking an all-expenses-paid trip to a hunting ranch owned by a Texas lawyer who only days earlier had settled a lawsuit in Free’s court for $1.2 million, the judge’s attorney acknowledged Monday.
But Free’s attorney, arguing before the state’s highest court, insisted the West Baton Rouge Parish judge should not face sanctions for a separate case in which he’s accused of failing to recuse himself from a contamination lawsuit even after he learned his mother’s address made her a potential plaintiff in the class action.
The judge’s attorney, Steven Scheckman, apologized to the state Supreme Court for Free’s misconduct in accepting the trip to the hunting ranch aboard a private jet, saying it “should not have happened.”
But Scheckman disputed the findings of the Louisiana Judiciary Commission and told the justices that Free was “becoming a fall guy” for a mapping error that had gone unnoticed in the class action for two years.
“This is all a mistake,” Scheckman said, “and he should not be blamed for what happened in this case.”
Mary Whitney, special counsel for the judiciary commission, the agency that investigates judicial misconduct, countered that Free “had no excuse” for not recognizing the conflict posed by his mother’s address after an attorney for Dow Chemical, a defendant in the class-action lawsuit, raised the issue in a letter to Free. Instead of calling a status conference involving all the parties, Whitney said, Free improperly telephoned the attorney’s law partner to complain, a call that marked another breach of judicial canons.
“Judge Free made an assumption about the attorney’s motivations and improperly attempted to resolve the matter by engaging in an ex parte communication … and exhibited bias toward the party for raising the recusal issue,” the judiciary commission wrote in court filings.
Free had not realized the boundaries in the class action had been changed by a prior judgment, Scheckman said, even though it was Free who signed the court order. “He didn’t know because it was a mistake,” Scheckman said, noting none of the attorneys recalled altering the boundaries in litigation dating back to 2001.
After investigating the misconduct complaints, the Office of Special Counsel pushed for Free to be suspended without pay for one year. But the judiciary commission, noting Free has had several other disciplinary complaints resolved confidentially, recommended the Supreme Court suspend the judge without pay for 30 days and require he reimburse the commission nearly $7,000 in costs.
“Judge Free’s actions have harmed the integrity of and respect for the judiciary,” the commission said, noting Free has been on the bench since 1997 and “should have been more familiar with his ethical obligations.”
Free, who presides in the 18th Judicial District, has had a number of previous encounters with the judiciary commission that weren’t made public until the current case, including similar instances in which he failed to recognize clear conflicts of interest. In 2001, for instance, Free signed what is called a deferred recommendation of discipline agreement with the commission after he failed to recuse himself from a case in which he had previously prosecuted the defendant.
In 1998, Free was cautioned by the judiciary commission “concerning allegations of a biased decision resulting from a hunting lodge relationship,” according to court filings. The judiciary commission also had warned Free in 2005 to avoid appointments that “tend to create an appearance of impropriety” amid claims that Free had showed bias by naming “a political ally ex parte as a temporary liquidator” in a case, the filings show.
In the latest case, Free drew the commission’s ire after traveling to a ranch south of Corpus Christi, Texas, at the expense of a lawyer who just days before the April 2010 trip had tried and settled a personal injury case in Free’s court. The judge made the trip at the request of Assistant District Attorney Tony Clayton, an attorney who regularly appears in matters before Free.
At the time, Clayton supposedly had expressed interest in buying the property, the Casa Bonita Ranch, in Goliad County, owned by Texas attorney David Rumley, who was working with Clayton on the personal injury case. Court filings say the “ostensible reason” for Free’s attendance was to allow him to offer Clayton his opinion of the ranch.
Free, according to court filings, is considered an expert “regarding wildlife management, hunting and the suitability of hunting camps.” Clayton, however, quickly determined he was not interested in the property and left the ranch.
The timing of the trip raised eyebrows on the judiciary commission because investigators believed Clayton may have invited the judge to Texas during settlement negotiations. The commission ultimately determined the invitation occurred “at or near the time of the settlement negotiations” but that the hunting trip had no impact on the case in Free’s court.
Free later appeared before the judiciary commission and described the trip as “just some friends going to look at some property together and boiling crawfish and hanging out.”
Justice John Weimer expressed alarm at a passage in the commission’s court filings that found “the testimony of the trip’s participants was not credible,” even as it rejected the notion that the story had been “concocted after the fact” to protect Free.
“It opens up a whole venue of concern if somebody is not being forthcoming with the commission,” Weimer said.
The commission’s filing quotes Free as saying there are “a lot of things I was not aware of in the (judicial) canons.” He added that “I’m much more cognizant that I have to be attentive of all the canons, especially in my personal life.”
Free did not speak at Monday’s hearing and left the Supreme Court so briskly that reporters had to chase him down St. Louis Street to seek comment.
He kept his back turned and walked away in silence.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.