Our Views: Judge gives rare apology; taxpayers want to know how courts spend their cash _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- Criminal District Court Chief Judge Camille Buras.

A legal advertisement from Judge Camille Buras, of Orleans Criminal District Court, is the judicial equivalent of writing 100 times on the blackboard, “I’m sorry, and I won’t do it again.”

State law prohibits judges from getting insurance benefits greater than those of other employees; judges used the contested funds to pay for enhanced insurance policies. Buras said she would repay the Judicial Expense Fund the cost of the benefits, which have been the subject of controversy for years. What remains unclear is what other judges are doing, or not doing, on this issue and what the judges’ overseers are doing, or not doing, to require repayment on the part of the judges.

The murkiness makes for a good, long story, which at one time or another has involved the local court, the state Attorney General’s Office and the Judiciary Commission, a body of the Supreme Court that is supposed to discipline errant Louisiana judges.

The legal notice appears to be part of a bargain Buras reached with the Judiciary Commission to resolve allegations from three years ago that she, along with almost every other judge who sat on the Criminal Court bench at that time, had illegally siphoned more than a half-million dollars in fines and fees collected from criminal defendants to pad their insurance benefits.

Judges are elected officials, but the Judiciary Commission acts in secret until it makes a recommendation to the Louisiana Supreme Court for censure, suspension or removal of a state judge, under the court’s rules. Clare Fiasconaro, counsel for the commission, said, “I can’t tell you one way or the other” about any actions involving Orleans judges over supplemental insurance payments.

The payments were a long-running abuse, according to an investigation by the Legislative Auditor’s Office, and many judges apparently have taken advantage of them over the years — including now-District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, a judge for 17 years.

If the dubious payments have ceased, it’s not at all clear what judges other than Buras have done the right thing in paying money back.

The episode, though, ought to rankle citizens. It’s part of a pattern of arrogance of decades’ standing; judges object when it is suggested that the folks who pay the bills ought to know how the court spends the taxpayers’ money.

The secrecy of action, or lack thereof, from the Judiciary Commission only underlines the distance from basic accountability that judges feel their dignity demands.