District Judge J. Robin Free has been suspended without pay for 30 days for 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.
The disciplinary action against Free, a judge in the judicial district that covers the parishes of West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee, was approved in a decree handed down on Tuesday by the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The court, on the recommendation of the state’s Judiciary Commission, also directed Free to reimburse the commission $6,724 for costs of the investigation against him.
The court also chided Free for his handling of a request by an attorney that Free recuse himself from overseeing a 2009 class-action lawsuit in which the judge’s mother had a potential financial interest.
However, the court found that the commission failed to produce evidence that Free was required to recuse himself from handling the class-action lawsuit. According to the ruling, Free’s mother did not reside in the boundary included in the case’s judgment.
“At the time these matters arose in December 2009 and March 2010, Judge Free was not a new judge and should have been more familiar with his ethical obligations,” the Supreme Court’s decision stated. “Judge Free’s actions have harmed the integrity of and respect for the judiciary.”
Speaking on his behalf Tuesday, Free’s attorney, Steve Scheckman, said the judge felt the court’s decision was “appropriate” — something his client expressed when he appeared before the Supreme Court last month.
“From the beginning, Free has been apologetic, and he accepts the Supreme Court’s opinion,” Scheckman said Tuesday afternoon. “He’s grateful that the Judiciary Commission did not prove he had engaged in misconduct regarding the recusal issue in the class-action case.”
According to the court’s ruling, Free, who has served as a state district court judge since he was elected in 1996, has been cautioned by the commission several times in the past for misconduct, which has included engaging in improper conversations designed to influence his actions in cases he presided over and creating the appearance of impropriety through his conduct and words while in court.
Those complaints were resolved privately by the commission, the decision states.
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 newest charges against him, the commission found 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 a lawyer whose personal injury case was settled in Free’s court.
The Supreme Court decision states that Judge Free “admitted that the trip was enjoyable and that he received a benefit from it” and says he should have known better than to accept it.
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.
“Judge Free has now admitted that his actions constituted ethical misconduct (but) did not recognize that his actions were ethically improper until after the hearing officer issued his proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law,” the court ruled in its decision Tuesday.
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.
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.
“Judge Free made an assumption about the attorney’s motivations and improperly attempted to resolve the matter by engaging in an ex parte communication … in which Free discussed the merits of the recusal issue and exhibited bias toward the party for raising the recusal issue,” Tuesday’s ruling read.
Since the commission’s investigation was launched, Free implemented new policies in his office regarding communication with attorneys.
According to court records, Free’s law clerks screen all his phone calls, and he refuses to talk to any attorney or party about a case he’s handling. All written correspondences are also set for status conferences or hearings, court records say.
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.