By Quinn Welsch
The Louisiana Supreme Court has suspended 18th Judicial District Court judges James Best and Robin Free for misconduct, accoding to a release published on Wednesday, June 29.
The Louisiana Judiciary Commission recommended the two judges be suspended from the bench after publishing a scathing review that accused the two judges of violating the Louisiana Constitution’s code of judicial conduct in April.
The18th Judicial District Court encompasses Pointe Coupee, West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes.
Judge Free was suspended from the bench for one year and was required to reimburse the Louisiana Judiciary Commission $11,098.68 in costs.
The commission’s report on Free, a 93-page document, detailed four accounts of violations.
The first account detailed an interuption between District Attorney officials and the family members of a victim of a vehicular homicide case. Free was accused of interrupting the meeting, held in a break room, and then making an inappropriate comment to the family members.
The second and third accounts accused the judge of improperly holding defendants in contempt of court on two different occasions. In the first, he sentenced a Port Allen man to five days in parish jail for “insolent behavior” after a hearing on a $25 traffic seat-belt fine. He also held a woman in contempt of court after she used profanity after her sentencing, but did not allow a grace period for her to defend herself. The commission accused Free of not following proper procedure for contempt of court.
Free was also accused of making inappropriate remarks in seven criminal cases and exhibited a “lack of of proper decorum, demeanor and temperament,” according to a majority opinion written by Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Greg Guidry. Justice Bernette Johnson likened Free’s court room to that of a theater during his hearing on May 3.
The commission identified other instances of misconduct throughout Free’s nearly 20-year career as a judge, saying “Judge Free’s misconduct is serious, not isolated and evidenced a pattern of improper comments, injudicious behavior and failure to follow the law.”
Guidry wrote that Free “either lacks a fundamental understanding regarding appropriate judicial temperament and demeanor or believes that maintaining appropriate judicial temperament and demeanor is unnecessary.”
Free admitted to most of the charges the commission accused him of. He conceded to the commission that he needed “thicker skin” when it comes to holding defendents in contempt of court. Though, his lawyer Steven Scheckman argued to the high court that Free followed the proper procedures, during the May hearing.
However, Scheckman agreed that the judge was wrong to use informal language in his official capacity and that he has corrected the issue.
Utlimately, the commission was not convinced the corrective measures would “address the larger issue.” The commission determined Free either “knew better or should have known better” and should have corrected the the issue long ago.
Especially in regard to the judge’s use of slang, “…the commission found that many of the defenses [the] respondent asserted to explain his in-court comments were absurd and wholly without merit and that his apologies regarding such comments were qualified and not unconditional,” Guidry wrote. “Accordingly, the commission found that respondent largely failed to accept responsibility for his conduct and demonstrated a lack of appreciation for the seriousness of his actions.”
Supreme Court justices Marcus Clark and John Weimer dissented from the Guidry and the majority’s opinion, both arguing for suspension without pay for a shorter period.
Judge Best was suspended for 15 days without pay and required to reimburse the commission $1,610.71 in costs.
The commission originally recommended a 30-day suspension.
Best was accused of bias after he terminated the probation of convicted sex offender Adam Garcia, who attended Bests’s church, in 2012. Best said he did not realize that communication with Garcia’s probation officer was wrong and that he regretted having a hearing without giving notice to the Attorney General’s office.
Best said his decision was “the worst decision in 22 years as a judge.”
The court lessened Best’s sentence, given that he self reported his bias and was cooperative with the commission.
The two judges have 14 days after the suspension was ordered to appeal the court’s order. If they do not appeal the order, the suspension goes into effect on the 15th day.
An “ad-hoc judge” in the surrounding area will be appointed to fill in for Judge Free if he is in fact suspended for a year, said Judge Alvin Batiste, of Iberville Parish.
Batiste gave his assurance that citizens and litigants would have their cases “heard and handled without delay.”