West Baton Rouge judge suspended for accepting free trip from attorney in 2014 _lowres

Judge J. Robin Free

A state district court judge is facing a possible 30-day suspension for alleged improprieties that include 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.

Eighteenth Judicial District Judge J. Robin Free also drew fire from the Louisiana Judiciary Commission for refusing to recuse himself from handling a class-action suit in which his mother had a potential financial interest.

The Louisiana Judiciary Commission, which investigates allegations of judicial misconduct, also has proposed that Free pay the commission more than $6,000. The proposed sanctions now go to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which is expected to hand down its decision after a disciplinary hearing on Oct. 13.

Free did not return phone calls Thursday for comment on the proposed sanctions, and his attorney, Steven Scheckman, was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

But in court documents detailing the case, Free expressed regrets in his mishandling of a 2009 class-action lawsuit and later admitted that it was improper of him to have accepted the trip to Texas in the 2010 personal injury case.

The commission has cited Free for misconduct several times during his tenure as judge, but those incidents were all privately handled by the commission, court records show.

Free, who faced no opposition in his bid for re-election this year, has the authority to preside over cases in West Baton Rouge, Pointe Coupee and Iberville parishes.

In the latest charges against him, the commission says Free created an appearance of impropriety and placed the court’s integrity and impartiality in question when he traveled to Texas on the dime of lawyer whose personal injury case was settled in Free’s court.

The court records reveal Free took the all-expense-paid three-day trip in April 2010 to a hunting ranch south of Corpus Christi, Texas, at the request of Assistant District Attorney Tony Clayton, who had expressed interest at the time in buying the property.

Clayton asked the judge to accompany him so Free could view the property, as well, the records say. The ranch was owned by a Texas attorney who was working with Clayton on the personal injury case.

The trip occurred shortly after the $1.2 million settlement in the case was delivered in Free’s court on March 24, 2010.

The judge’s actions were called into question by the commission because investigators believed Clayton extended the invitation during the trial’s settlement negotiations.

Court records say Free was flown to Texas on the private jet owned by the law firm that the property’s owner worked for and was provided other benefits such as ground transportation, food and recreational activities during his visit.

In early hearings related to the charges, Free argued his actions were not unethical because he was merely accompanying Clayton on the trip and received no direct benefit from it.

He later recanted his opinion and admitted it was ethically improper.

“Tony Clayton probably described it the best and — that it was just some friends going to look at some property together and boiling crawfish and hanging out,” Free is quoted as saying in the court files. “But looking back through this process of going through this where it says you should not receive a benefit … I realize that’s a violation.”

Free added, “I did receive a benefit … I realize that now. I just wish I’d have realized it then.”

In the charge related to the class-action lawsuit, Free was chided for exhibiting bias and hostility toward attorneys for Dow Chemical after they presented him with a valid argument for him to step away from the case.

Although the commission acknowledged that Free did not have prior knowledge that his mother was a member in the class-action lawsuit, the commission wants Free sanctioned by the state’s highest court for not handing the case over to another judge after he was made aware of the conflict of interest.

In a conversation with one of Dow’s attorneys, Free called the request for his self-recusal a low move and “cheap shot” and that he suspected Dow’s lawyers had an “improper motive” in raising the issue, according to court documents.

The commission said instead of conversing with attorneys behind the scenes, Free should have scheduled a status conference with both parties in the case after receiving the request.

After being formally charged, Free conceded his actions were improper. He told the commission he has implemented new policies in his office because of the fallout.

“As far as phone calls, I don’t return a phone call. … I will never return another phone call to any lawyer, any potential party,” Free said in court documents.

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter @tjonesreporter.