Supreme Court removes Ascension Parish justice of the peace for misconduct, legal errors _lowres

Leroy Laiche

The Louisiana Supreme Court removed Ascension Parish Justice of the Peace Leroy Laiche Jr. from office Tuesday over judicial misconduct so severe it “cast a dark shadow on the judiciary,” according to the ruling.

In a 5-2 decision, the state’s high court adopted the Judiciary Commission’s findings that Laiche’s “misconduct constituted egregious legal errors” and brought “disrepute” to the state judiciary. The court declared the position he has held since October 2009 vacant.

The court also ordered Laiche to pay $14,244 in investigative and prosecutorial costs to the state Judiciary Commission.

Laiche, who served on the Second Justice of the Peace Court in Prairieville, faced allegations of rude behavior to courtroom litigants, improper handling of peace bonds and abuse of his authority to issue the bonds and jail people for failing to abide by them.

“We find respondent’s faulty interpretation of the law, failure to faithfully enforce it, incompetence and gross negligence in the administration of his office, and general indifference to these failures has negatively affected many lives and casts a dark shadow on the judiciary as a whole,” Justice Greg Guidry wrote in the majority opinion.

He added that Laiche engaged “in willful misconduct relating to his official duty, engaged in willful and persistent failure to perform his duty, and engaged in persistent and public conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute.”

Laiche and his attorney did not return messages for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Under Supreme Court rules, Laiche has 14 days to seek a rehearing.

“If an appointment needs to be made (to Laiche’s post), we would do so at the appropriate time,” said Robert Gunn, spokesman for the Supreme Court.

Laiche, a former assistant district attorney in the 23rd Judicial District, was in the midst of serving a second six-year term as justice of the peace. The allegations against him arise from four complaints filed with the state Office of Special Counsel in spring and summer 2011.

The complaints focused on his handling of peace bonds in two family disputes: one over child custody and the other over the children of a man who had died and sought a peace bond against their stepmother.

Peace bonds work like a restraining order. After a complaint and a hearing, justices of the peace can order defendants to put up a peace bond of as much as $1,000 for as long as six months to keep the peace. Break the peace and defendants can lose their bond or even go to jail for up to five days.

Though often only a small part of a justice of the peace’s time — evictions and civil matters are more common — issuing peace bonds can put justices of the peace in the middle of emotional family and neighborhood disputes.

Laiche was accused of inadequately refunding expired peace bonds, improperly extending them without hearings, losing track of some of the peace bond funds and double charging filing fees associated with the bonds to enrich himself, according to court documents.

Through his imposition and repeated extension of peace bonds against some of those who ended up filing complaints against him, Laiche was also accused of interfering with the orders of a state District Court involving visitation rights in the child custody case.

The commission also claimed Laiche improperly held one of his peace bond defendants in jail for more than five days. The woman was unable to get all of her medication in Ascension Parish Prison and had a nervous breakdown that forced her to be hospitalized.

In Laiche’s response to the court last year, he claimed the Office of Special Counsel, the Judiciary Commission’s prosecutorial arm, went on a one-sided “witch hunt instigated by four people whose mental faculties are greatly in question.” He noted one of his complainants admitted to mental illness so severe she could not work.

Laiche also acknowledged making errors with peace bonds and the money associated with them early in his time as a justice of the peace, including extensions of the bonds without a hearing, but he wrote the extensions had been based on prior practice and out of desire to avoid new hearings that might give rise to heated family arguments.

The commission countered that Laiche refused to accept responsibility for his actions.

Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson and Associate Justices Scott Crichton, Jeanette Theriot Knoll and Marcus Clark joined Guidry in the majority.

Associate Justices John L. Weimer and Jeff Hughes III dissented from the majority opinion Tuesday.

Weimer wrote that while he did not condone Laiche’s admitted “egregious” legal errors involving peace bonds, he believed a sanction less than removal was appropriate.

He wrote that the law on peace bonds is “less than clear,” and most of Laiche’s errors were early in his term of office and no commission findings suggested Laiche was motivated “by family, social, political or other relationships.”

In addition to his removal, the Supreme Court ordered Laiche to refrain from running for judicial office for five years and reserved the right to bring attorney disciplinary proceedings against him.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.