The 18th Judicial District Court will likely lose two of its judges — who together have spent more than 40 years on the bench — following rulings handed down Wednesday from the Louisiana Supreme Court over their misconduct.
The state’s highest court has ordered Judge J. Robin Free be removed from the bench for one year without pay for failing to maintain the integrity of his position and exhibiting behavior described in a 58-page ruling from a majority of the Supreme Court’s seven justices as injudicious, lacking judicial temperament and giving an appearance of impropriety.
Judge James Best is facing a 15-day suspension without pay for mishandling a probation termination hearing for a sex offender he knew from his church choir.
Free will also have to pay the state’s Judiciary Commission $11,098 in fines while Best will have to fork over $1,610 in costs to the commission for its investigation into the allegations against him.
The judges have 14 days to apply for a rehearing, said Valerie Willard, the deputy judicial administrator and media relations representative for the state’s Supreme Court. If the court doesn’t grant the request or if neither judge asks for a rehearing, their suspensions will go into effect after the 14-day period ends, she said Wednesday.
Both men, who preside over cases in Iberville, West Baton Rouge and Pointe Coupee parishes, were represented in their hearings before the seven justices in May by attorney Steve Scheckman. Scheckman did not return a call Wednesday for comment. And Free could not be reached for his response.
However, in a prepared statement Wednesday, Best said he was pleased the matter was finally coming to a close and apologized to the residents of the 18th JDC.
He said he never intended to disrespect or violate any rule of law.
“I recognize after the fact that I made some pretty poor decisions for which I have regretted every day for 4½ years,” Best stated. “I fully respect and accept the Supreme Court’s ruling.”
Best, who has served as a state district court judge since 1993, had to appear before the Supreme Court for terminating the probation of Antonio Garcia in 2011 without notifying the state’s Attorney General’s Office, which had stepped in to prosecute after the District Attorney’s Office recused itself. Garcia was convicted of indecent behavior with a juvenile and sentenced in 2009 to five years of probation.
The Judiciary Commission also learned Best had discussed Garcia’s motion to terminate his probation privately with the man’s probation officer and a local police chief before the motion was heard — a violation of judicial conduct rules.
During the Commission hearing, Best denied he was a friend of Garcia’s, saying they were simply acquaintances who happened to be members of the same church choir.
The state’s Judiciary Commission recommended Best be suspended 30 days without pay based on his past disciplinary record with the court.
NEW ORLEANS Two Baton Rouge-area district judges took different approaches before the Louisi…
But in the majority’s ruling, authored by Justice John Weimer, the justices said they did not feel the court’s past disciplinary actions against Best should be weighted into their ruling on the recent matter. They also took into account the remorse Best displayed when he appeared before them in May.
“The record reflects there was objective support for Judge Best’s ruling, inasmuch as the probation officer testified Mr. Garcia had ‘completed every general aspect or condition of his probation’ and a psychologist opined that Mr. Garcia ‘completed the sex offender curriculum’ and was a ‘low risk to the community’,” the ruling states.
But Chief Justice Bernette “C.J.” Johnson, in her partial dissent, said Best’s punishment is “too lenient.”
“I am deeply troubled by the favoritism shown to Mr. Garcia by Judge Best,” Johnson wrote. “I find his actions in doing so were motivated by his personal feelings towards Mr. Garcia and his family. Although there is no pattern of misconduct by Judge Best, I find his misconduct here particularly egregious.”
Justice Greg G. Guidry joined Johnson in her dissent over the 15-day suspension. Both preferred the Commission 30-day recommendation.
Free’s suspension is his second within a two-year period. In December 2014, Free was suspended without pay for 30 days for accepting an all-expense-paid trip from a Texas attorney whose client was awarded $1.2 million in a personal injury lawsuit tried in the judge’s court.
District Judge J. Robin Free has been suspended without pay for 30 days for accepting an all…
Free, who has served on the bench since he was first elected in 1996, is now being chastised by the state’s high court for showing bias toward prosecutors based on comments he made in front of family members of the victims in the case against Jerry Jordan.
Jordan was accused of piloting a boat while drunk on False River in Pointe Coupee Parish and crashing into another boat. The accident resulted in the deaths of three young men.
Following an April 2011 court hearing, multiple witnesses said Free walked into a waiting room in the District Attorney’s Office and criticized the defense lawyer for trying to prolong the case so Free would be unable to preside over it because Free had a reputation for “putting people in jail.” The mother of one of the victims also said Free promised to make sure Jordan served jail time to ease her suffering.
Free was also accused of abusing his contempt authority in two separate cases in September 2011, throwing a man and a woman in jail without giving them the opportunity to speak in their defense.
At his disciplinary hearing in May, Free’s attorney argued the man was rolling his eyes, making “funny faces” and statements in an arrogant tone that implied he was smarter than Free. As for the other defendant the judge put in jail that day, Scheckman asserted court transcripts show her using curse words and being obviously frustrated during the proceedings.
Free also was cited for making inappropriate comments toward women during domestic abuse proceedings and using slang during criminal cases to speak to defendants, including using language that could be interpreted as having racial undertones.
“We agree with the Commission that (Free) should have recused himself from the case after knowingly making the comments in the presence of the victims’ families,” Justice Guidry wrote in the majority’s ruling Wednesday against Free. “Although (Free) continues to argue that he could not have possibly known the members of the victims’ families, we agree with the Commission that (Free) knew the meeting included the victims’ families and thus knew to whom he was speaking when he made his comments.”
Guidry wrote that even though the defendants’ demeanors and comments in court were unwise, they were not contemptuous.
And as for Free’s behavior during domestic abuse proceedings and use of slang, the justices said it “demonstrates a pattern of injudicious behavior and gives the impression (Free) either lacks a fundamental understanding regarding appropriate judicial temperament and demeanor or believes that maintaining appropriate judicial temperament and demeanor is unnecessary.”
Justices Weimer and Marcus R. Clark both disagreed with Free’s punishment.
In his dissent, Weimer said Free’s suspension should have been shorter, calling the court’s sanction “overly punitive.”
Weimer noted that the “primary purpose of the Code of Judicial Conduct is to protect the public rather than to discipline judges. ”
He added: “As the majority recognized, Judge Free has demonstrated … sincerity in changing or modifying his conduct.”
Nevertheless, the justices said he should have taken steps to correct his courtroom behavior long before the Judiciary Commission started investigating the allegations against him.