Facing a second suspension hearing before the Louisiana Supreme Court, 18th Judicial District Judge Robin Free should have the decency to resign.
Free could get a one-year suspension from the bench after an investigation of his conduct by the Judiciary Commission. That’s a long time, but unfortunately, the judge is able to wait; he was just re-elected to a 10-year term on the district court.
It is not fair for him to remain, for both the court and the people of the three parishes the district serves.
Free is accused by the state’s Judiciary Commission of making joking comments about domestic violence as defendants arrested on those charges appeared before him, using mocking language with female defendants. He is also accused of improperly holding defendants in contempt and jailing them without following Supreme Court rules and, in one case, speaking to family members of victims in a vehicular homicide case when the defendant and his lawyer were not present.
The judge is a two-time offender. He was earlier 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.
Another veteran of the 18th district bench, James Best, is facing a suspension as well: He is accused of cutting short the probation of a sex offender he knew casually from his church choir without notifying prosecutors about a hearing in the case.
A 30-day suspension without pay should be enough for Best to reconsider the propriety of his conduct. But as we saw in Free’s case, earlier disciplinary action hasn’t changed his ways.
An attorney representing both judges said in a statement that it would be “ethically inappropriate” to comment at this time because the findings are still pending.
The Judicial Commission, a nine-member board that considers complaints against judges, filed four counts accusing Free of violating the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Louisiana Constitution, suggesting that he not only be suspended but also pay the commission $11,098 in fines.
The erratic behavior of some judges is a staple of lawyer lore, but the commission documented a series of incidents in which Free was cavalier with defendants and others before his court.
After a court hearing in April 2011, Free is accused of walking into a room where the victims’ family members sat with District Attorney Ricky Ward and other prosecutors. The report against the judge says he criticized the defense lawyer in the case for not wanting a certain trial date, saying the lawyer didn’t want him to preside in the case because of his reputation for putting “people in jail.” The brief said Free also showed bias toward the prosecution when he said, “I would have put him in jail for you,” which offended the mother of one of the victims. In a separate civil matter related to the same case, Free is accused of stopping the deposition of a witness whose testimony was highly favorable to the defendant.
The commission found that Free should have recused himself from all proceedings related to the cases after he made the inappropriate comments in front of the victim’s families. The judge lamely said he was just in the room looking for a cup of coffee.
In two additional counts, Free is accused of abusing his contempt authority with separate defendants thrown in jail — without, the commission said, giving them the opportunity to speak in their defense.
This kind of “don’t mess with me, I’m a judge” attitude is hardly going to foster respect for the law or the judicial district covering West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes. We hope that Free will do the respectful thing, for once, and give the people of the district the chance to elect a new judge.