NEW ORLEANS — The Louisiana Supreme Court came to the defense of embattled state District Judge Janice Clark on Wednesday, as a skeptical majority of justices picked apart a judicial misconduct complaint lodged against her and questioned why the state’s judiciary commission had even brought formal charges.
After presiding in Baton Rouge’s 19th Judicial District Court for more than two decades, Clark found herself without a robe before the state’s highest court, accused of improperly dismissing a lawsuit three years ago.
The Judiciary Commission of Louisiana, noting this was not the first time Clark fell short of judicial standards, claimed her behavior amounted to an “egregious” breach of judicial canons and “willful misconduct” warranting public censure, a relatively minor form of discipline that nevertheless would be an embarrassment for a seasoned judge up for re-election.
While the justices have yet to rule, they appeared unimpressed by the allegations Wednesday and quickly turned the tables on Assistant Special Counsel John E. Keeling as he asked the court to reprimand Clark and order she pay some $2,500 in costs.
One justice after another hammered Keeling with questions, and many seemed almost offended that the commission had recommended discipline, given the facts of the case.
Justice Jeff Hughes said he struggled to see anything egregious in Clark’s actions, while Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wondered aloud why supposed legal errors couldn’t simply be addressed on appeal. Among the most vocal critics was Justice Jeanette Theriot Knoll, who worried the case could set a “dangerous precedent” for jurists.
“I’m having problems with the commission even bringing a case like this,” Knoll said. “We have judges who make mistakes, and nobody is perfect.”
The misconduct complaint stemmed from a defamation lawsuit against the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office filed in 2010 by Marie Reed, a woman Johnson described 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 lawsuit without a motion before her, and “interfered with the attorney-client relationship” by questioning Reed at a hearing without her attorney present. Clark displayed an unacceptable “lack of professional competence in the law,” the commission alleged, “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.”
Keeling claimed Clark also showed a “lack of candor” and honesty amid the disciplinary proceedings and refused to take responsibility for her actions. The commission said a legal error can rise to the level judicial misconduct if it is made “contrary to clear and determined law.”
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 judiciary commission claimed, the judge should not have dismissed the case immediately but 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 her mind about the dismissal.
Clark’s attorney, Richard C. Stanley, argued that, unlike criminal cases, there is no legal authority in Louisiana that forbids judges from directly addressing civil litigants without their attorneys present. He said Clark had the best of intentions and “was trying to do the right thing.” He said Clark dismissed the case without prejudice, which paved the way for Reed to file a subsequent lawsuit shortly thereafter.
Justice Greg Guidry said all district judges can relate to the frustrations of a busy docket and the possibility for some decisions to be made in haste. Justice Marcus Clark, no relation to Janice Clark, asked Keeling whether the judiciary commission could point to a pattern of similar legal errors made by Clark; it could not.
“Are we going to let the Judiciary Commission be the court of appeals?” he asked.
The commission’s request for public censure marked its fourth disciplinary case against Clark in 12 years, though it was the first one to be made public. 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 cases were resolved privately, with the commission issuing Clark a letter of admonishment after she complied with the terms of the agreement. She 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, and the second was for failing to disclose that a lawyer in a case before her was representing her in a personal legal matter and failing to refer a recusal motion to another judge.
Commission investigations are confidential unless a recommendation is made to the Supreme Court that a judge be disciplined. The commission filed information about Clark’s prior disciplinary cases into the court record when it recommended discipline in the current misconduct case.
Clark, in her testimony before the commission, said she would do things differently in the future, not because she had done something wrong, but because of the pain and expense of contesting the allegations. And regardless of how the proceedings play out, she suggested, some damage has been done to her reputation. “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, according to court records.
Clark declined to be interviewed after Wednesday’s hearing. “I don’t think I’m allowed to comment,” she said as she left the court room, “but there will come a day when I’ll be happy to.”