Judge Clark faces possible censure

Judiciary commission findings
Judiciary commission findings

A state district judge faces possible censure by the Louisiana Supreme Court after the state’s Judiciary Commission found she committed judicial misconduct in dismissing a lawsuit without legal grounds or a proper hearing.

The request for censure marks the commission’s fourth formal charge in 12 years against Judge Janice Clark, of the 19th Judicial District, but is only the first to be made public, court records show.

Clark’s attorney, Bob Downing, said Thursday that regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, the case has already taken its toll on Clark, who has spent “an enormous amount of money” responding to the allegations.

He said the case, which comes as Clark heads into her next election campaign, might also have cost her an opportunity for a federal appointment.

A message left for Clark at the District Court went unreturned.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments March 26 in the case, which stems from a defamation lawsuit Marie Reed filed against the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office in 2010.

The commission found Clark dismissed the lawsuit in April 2011 despite neither party having a motion to dismiss pending before the court, and after a hearing in which Clark questioned Reed about two motions without her attorney present.

The commission said Clark’s actions “constituted an egregious legal error that rose to the level of judicial misconduct” and showed “a lack of professional competence in the law, a deviation from the high standards of conduct expected of a judge, and a failure to uphold public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”

Clark gave multiple conflicting reasons for her actions, a fact the commission found “troubling” and indicative of a “lack of candor” toward the investigative body.

Clark initially told the commission she dismissed the case because she intended to revoke Reed’s status as a pauper — one who cannot pay court costs — but knew Reed then would be unable to move forward with the case.

Clark also said the Sheriff’s Office had asked for dismissal. Court records show Clark had already denied that request.

Clark told the commission that the Sheriff’s Office was still “clamoring for it, re-urging it,” but the commission found no evidence of that in the court record.

“Rather than dismissing the suit, she should have issued an order revoking the prior order granting pauper status,” the commission wrote in its motion to the Supreme Court.

Clark also insisted the April 19, 2011, hearing at which she questioned Reed without her attorney wasn’t actually a hearing.

Clark said she had already dismissed the case by signed order on April 18, despite having given Reed another 24 hours to update her financial information, and was just giving Reed one last chance to change the court’s mind.

Clark later said the second court date was simply for the purpose of “spreading the minutes,” which she defined as putting on the record a decision that had already been made. Court minutes and hearing transcripts indicate otherwise.

“The lengths to which Judge Clark has gone to deny that the proceeding on April 19, 2011, was a hearing, and her unresponsive or factually inaccurate responses to questions about why she did not grant Ms. Reed time to pay the costs ... suggest that Judge Clark knows on some level that she should not have done what she did,” the commission concluded.

“Yet, she has taken no responsibility for her actions. The only regret she expressed to the commission was regret over how the proceedings before the commission have affected her.”

In her testimony before the commission, Clark said she would do things differently in the future, not because she had done anything wrong, but because of the pain and expense of fighting the allegations.

“The pain, the agony, the consternation, the expense, the loss of an opportunity, an opportunity to be chancellor. I had to give that up. Federal appointments,” she said.

Clark asked the commission for a “deferred recommendation of discipline agreement,” a private agreement in which the judge admits to some or all of the alleged ethical violations and agrees to take certain remedial steps or else face discipline.

The commission denied Clark’s request in this case but granted one for three prior charges.

In 2003, Clark was formally charged with violations relating to her public endorsement of a voting redistricting plan, making a loan to herself in violation of campaign finance laws and failing to recuse herself from a case in which the Louisiana Board of Ethics was a party when she was being investigated by the board.

Those charges were resolved privately, with the commission issuing Clark a letter of admonishment after she complied with the terms of the agreement.

Clark also received letters of caution from the commission in 2002 and 2011.

The first was for jailing a party for contempt without following proper procedures.

The second was for failing to disclose that a lawyer appearing in a case before her was representing her in a personal legal matter and for failing to refer a recusal motion to another judge.

Downing, Clark’s attorney, said the commission should have agreed to another private reprimand.

“They go page after page after page of saying Judge Clark wouldn’t admit this or that, but the very first letter I drafted to the commission (in response to the charge) admits she shouldn’t have talked to Ms. Reed without her attorney,” Downing said.

Downing also questioned the commission’s decision to make public Clark’s prior run-ins with the investigative body.

Commission investigations are typically confidential unless and until the commission recommends to the Supreme Court that a judge be disciplined. However, the commission filed information about Clark’s prior charges into the court’s record when it recommended discipline in the current case.

“All of that was supposed to be confidential,” Downing said, adding, “This has been over her head for a long time. I think she had an opportunity with the Obama administration to have been appointed to something. That’s gone. The damage has been done. It doesn’t matter what they do.”