James Gill: A dubious role model on the bench

How to teach young thugs respect for the law and for authority is a question that has no easy answers.

What we can say, however, is that a judge facing her own indictment is not the ideal role model. When juvenile delinquents in New Orleans are hauled before Judge Yolanda King, they will snicker if adjured to tell the truth. There will always be some bad boy to make sure word gets out that King is accused of lying to get elected.

Sure, all politicians lie to get elected, but not generally under oath. And most of them are not running for offices that require them to sit in moral judgment of their constituents or their constituents’ children. The majesty of the law takes a serious knock when Your Honor is an alleged felon.

As felons go — indeed, in the gallery of rogue Louisiana judges — King is strictly bush league. She was elected to juvenile court last year after swearing she lived in Orleans Parish when, according to a state grand jury, her real home was across the lake.

We’ve seen judges take bribes, frame their enemies, do illicit favors for their mistresses, bully the staff and get sozzled daily, to take a few examples. So it is not easy to get worked up about the old domiciliary fudge.

And old it is. Candidates are forever being accused of giving a bogus address so that they can run for an office they fancy. When that happens, an opponent usually files a challenge in civil court, a ruling is handed down before the election and voters may be confident the ballot is ringer-free. Such disputes always can be resolved without invoking criminal law — except this time.

Cynthia Samuel, after finishing third in the primary, handed out flyers all over town asserting that neither King nor her runoff opponent, Doug Hammel, lived in New Orleans. “She felt she needed to do this to feel better about the whole situation. She needs love. I can pray for her,” King said. What Samuel really needed was an investigation of her allegations, which she repeated in letters to the state judiciary committee, the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, but the election went off without a hitch.

Once King had won, it transpired that Cannizzaro had seen some merit in the allegations, although his obvious conflict obliged him to call in state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, who took the case to a grand jury. King was duly indicted for lying in an affidavit, a misdemeanor, and filing a false public record, which carries a maximum sentence of five years. Time has come for King to pray for herself.

Indictments, however, do not come more over the top than this one. King’s alleged offense was qualifying to run from her sister’s address in New Orleans while claiming a homestead exemption on a house she owns in St. Tammany Parish. All the criminal court judges in New Orleans have recused themselves too, so the state Supreme Court will have to call in an outsider to ponder King’s fate, but she’s obviously not going to be locked up for this. A conviction, however, would presumably require the state Supreme Court to remove her from the bench.

Indeed, the Supreme Court has suspended many a judge not convicted, or even accused, of criminal offenses. That King continues to dispense justice while under indictment is hard to reconcile with the court’s professed concern for public perception.

It cannot be argued that justice would suffer if the court were deprived of King’s services, for juvenile judges in New Orleans have way too much time on their hands. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has long figured that the city’s six juvenile judges are two too many, and in this legislative session it seems that a bill giving him what he wants will finally pass.

So King would not be missed if the Supreme Court took her off the bench, although Chief Justice Bernette Johnson might be sad to see it happen. King used to be her research assistant.

James Gill’s email is jgill@ theadvocate.com.