A unanimous Louisiana Supreme Court rejected the state Judiciary Commission’s recommendation Wednesday to publicly reprimand state District Judge Janice Clark for alleged judicial misconduct.
The commission had accused Clark, a veteran 19th Judicial District Court judge in Baton Rouge, of improperly dismissing a lawsuit three years ago.
“Based on the record before us, we are fully persuaded that nothing with which the Commission charges Judge Clark warrants this Court’s sanction for judicial misconduct,” Associate Justice Jeannette Theriot Knoll wrote for the high court.
The Supreme Court’s 15-page ruling followed a hearing the court held in New Orleans on March 26, when a majority of the justices questioned why the commission had brought formal charges against Clark in the first place.
Clark, who sits on the civil bench and is up for re-election in the fall, said Wednesday night that it is always gratifying to have the state’s highest court find favor in your decisions.
“This has been a long ordeal. I will use this as a teachable moment,” Clark said. “I intend to be a better judge as a result of this. I will try to avoid any appearance that this court is not being run appropriately.”
The misconduct complaint stemmed from a defamation lawsuit filed against the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office in 2010 by Marie Reed, a woman Chief Justice Bernette Johnson described at the March hearing as “fairly litigious,” noting a long list of civil cases she has pursued.
The petition sought $250,000 in damages and claimed detectives had libeled Reed by publishing an “announcement on the Internet” that warrants had been issued for her arrest after a theft investigation.
The Judiciary Commission claimed Clark denied Reed her right to due process in April 2011 when she dismissed the suit without a motion before her, and “interfered with the attorney-client relationship” by questioning Reed at a hearing without her attorney present.
One complicating factor in the case was that Reed, as she has in other lawsuits, initially represented herself and had been granted status as a pauper, someone unable to pay court costs.
When Clark decided to revoke Reed’s pauper status, the commission argued, the judge should not have dismissed the case immediately but rather should have given Reed time to pay court costs if she chose to proceed.
For her part, Clark insisted the April 2011 hearing during which she questioned Reed without her attorney present wasn’t actually a hearing.
Clark said she had already dismissed the case the day before and wanted to provide Reed a last chance to change Clark’s mind about the dismissal.
“Neither the Commission nor the facts presented to us suggest Judge Clark acted in bad faith. …” Knoll wrote. “Further, there is no suggestion Judge Clark’s conduct was part of a pattern or practice of legal error.”
“We find it is clear from the record that Judge Clark’s only motivation in speaking with Ms. Reed … was to help her,” the justice added.
The high court agreed with Clark’s attorney, Richard C. Stanley, who argued at the hearing that — unlike criminal cases — there is no legal authority in Louisiana that forbids judges from directly addressing civil litigants without their attorneys present.
Stanley told the justices that Clark dismissed the case without prejudice, which paved the way for Reed to file a subsequent lawsuit shortly thereafter.