GONZALES — The Louisiana Supreme Court is weighing whether an Ascension Parish justice of the peace should be removed from office on 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.
But Prairieville-based Justice of the Peace Leroy Laiche Jr. is fighting back. “The Office of Special Counsel went on a witch hunt instigated by four people whose mental faculties are greatly in question,” he says in a filing with the Supreme Court.
The nine-member state Judiciary Commission, Louisiana’s top watchdog for judicial misconduct, has recommended the Supreme Court remove Laiche, a former assistant district attorney serving his second four-year term as justice of the peace.
The allegations against Laiche arise from four complaints filed with the state Office of Special Counsel, the commission’s prosecutorial arm, in spring and summer 2011 over his handling of peace bonds in two emotional family disputes. One fight was over child custody; the other involved the children of a man who had died and sought a peace bond against their stepmother.
The commission also charges that Laiche has had a practice of inadequately refunding expired peace bonds, improperly extending them and double charging filing fees associated with the bonds to enrich himself.
The commission also claims he 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.
The commission claims Laiche refuses to accept responsibility for his actions.
“Respondent’s conduct shows he is unfit and unqualified to sit as a justice of the peace because of his willful misconduct relating to his official duty and persistent and public conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute,” attorneys for the Office of Special Counsel wrote to the Supreme Court in late November.
Peace bonds work a bit 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.
Applying peace bonds come in addition to other functions justices of the peace routinely perform, such as presiding over weddings and handling evictions, litter court and civil suits worth up to $5,000.
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 a justice in the middle of, at times, volatile family and neighborhood disputes, some justices of the peace said.
While Laiche, in his response to the Supreme Court, has acknowledged some errors in his procedures with peace bonds and the money associated with them, which he says he has corrected, he disputes there has been any pattern of problems outside the two instances several years ago that have given rise to the current case.
In the response, Laiche fires back at the commission, claiming it has relied on the testimony of people who are unhappy with his rulings — one of whom admits she suffers from mental illness to the point she cannot work — and who refuse to accept responsibility for actions, including a criminal arrest, that landed them in jail.
Laiche also has taken issue with the state Office of Special Counsel’s investigation, which he claims in his response was one-sided and failed to consider his word of other parties in the family disputes who might have negated the allegations.
Laiche also disputes he personally profited from the fees but claims they constitute a small part of his fee revenue and went to cover court overhead only.
Laiche did not dispute claims from the commission and Office of Special Counsel that he extended peace bonds without a hearing.
In his response, Laiche says he no longer does that but he did the extensions without a hearing in a highly charged family custody case only to limit interaction between the two sides.
As far as the application of fees, Laiche claims in his response he was trying to follow an, at times, unclear state law on peace bond fees.
After the complaints in 2011, the claims against Laiche were under review for more than four years in secret by an independent hearing officer and then by the Judiciary Commission.
The complaints became public in September when the commission filed its findings and recommendations of discipline following a hearing in March.
The commission, which is made up of appellate and state district judges, lawyers and other residents, also wants Laiche to reimburse the commission $14,244 for its costs in reviewing the matter.
The commission also wants to reserve the right to have the state Attorney Disciplinary Board bring further sanction against him individually as a licensed lawyer.
Attorneys for the Office of Special Counsel and for Laiche appeared before the full Supreme Court on Dec. 9.
Valerie Willard, spokeswoman for the Supreme Court, said that while there is no timetable, the court takes, on average, about six to eight weeks to render a decision.