District Judge J. Robin Free, of Port Allen, was re-elected without opposition a few months ago, but perhaps he wouldn’t have had a free ride if his habitual disregard for the code of ethics had been public knowledge.
Free is a great fan of the free ride, which is one of the reasons he now faces suspension. His attorney, Steven Scheckman, conceded at a hearing last week that Free deserves to be sanctioned for flying to Texas on a private jet and accepting various favors provided by an attorney who had just won $1.2 million in his court.
But Scheckman told state Supreme Court justices Free should not be blamed for failing to recuse himself in a class-action suit when his mother was a potential plaintiff, because it was “all a mistake.” That seems unlikely to wash, however, because the defendant’s attorneys pointed out the conflict in a letter to Free at the time, receiving only a querulous phone call in response.
When a complaint was lodged against Free for these two lapses, the Office of Special Counsel suggested to the state Judiciary Commission that a one-year suspension would be appropriate. The commission then revealed that Free had been up to such tricks for years, but disciplinary measures had always been taken in private.
In light of Free’s newly exposed record, you might think the commission would call for a harsher punishment than the special counsel.
Well, think again. The commission turned around and recommended that the Supreme Court remove Free from the bench for 30 days. Last week’s hearing was to consider whether the justices should agree to what the public will view as derisory penalty.
Free has been in dutch with the Judiciary Commission often over the years. Take 2001, for instance, when he renewed an acquaintance with a defendant in his court. That defendant, who knew Free as his prosecutor in a brush with the law a few years earlier, must have been astonished when he did not step aside. The commission issued a “deferred recommendation of discipline.”
But it didn’t cramp his style, and he has practically measured his judicial career in blatant conflicts of interest. He was cautioned in 2005 for appointing “a political ally ex parte as a temporary liquidator.”
His fondness for the freebie goes back to the beginning of his judicial career. First elected in 1997, he was cautioned a year later over “allegations of a biased decision resulting from a hunting lodge relationship.”
Through all this, Scheckman was presumably less inclined to cut Free some slack than he is today. Scheckman was head of the Special Counsel Office from 1994 to 2008.
Had all Free’s previous offenses not been kept in confidence, it is possible that he might have been sufficiently chastened to mend his ways and, thus, avoid his current predicament. It is hard to be sure, though, given his evident lack of shame.
What does seem likely is that he would have drawn some opposition on Election Day, and the chance to elect a square judge would have appealed to lots of voters. But the public is not permitted to know about the sins of their judges until they become serious enough for the commission to call in the Supreme Court justices.
Even then, the instinct to protect errant jurists remains strong, as the 30-day suspension recommended for Free once again illustrates.
The Supreme Court will not lightly remove a judge, presumably figuring that the privilege is best reserved to the voters. That is surely why the judges’ ethical offenses, once established to the commission’s satisfaction, should be in the public domain. It makes no sense to trust the voters and then keep them in the dark.
The obvious effect of this secrecy is that judges cannot be assumed to meet the higher ethical standards that their office warrants. Litigants have no way of knowing how many more Judge Freerides are out there.
Free, at first, claimed not to see what he had done wrong, which would make him too stupid to be a judge. When he finally conceded fault, he noted there are “a lot of things I was not aware of in the canons.”
The Judiciary Commission opined that Free “should have been more familiar with his ethical obligations” because he has been on the bench for such a long time. That is absurd. The sleaze here is so obvious that no judicial experience whatsoever is required to recognize it.
Free has “harmed the integrity of and respect for the judiciary,” according to the commission. Much the same could be said for its own recommendation.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.