“Her case comes up just when the Supreme Court might feel the time has come to counter the perception of racial imbalance in matters of judicial discipline.”

Clearing the bench
September 13, 2009

Wayward judges have occupied a fair amount of the state Supreme Court's time in recent years, and there is no sign that the supply will dry up.

Two more now await their fate. The court must decide whether Joan Benge should be removed from the bench and whether ousted judge C. Hunter King should be allowed to resume the practice of law.

It is a tad awkward that Benge and King should turn up simultaneously, for she is white from Jefferson Parish, he is black from Orleans and this court has not been universally regarded as colorblind in its pursuit of unfit jurists.

Imagine the reaction if the court, which has only one black member, left Benge in place while refusing to give King his law license back. Ructions might confidently be predicted.

Indeed, even if Benge and King were both given a break, the court might still not be hailed as even-handed, because the four metro-area judges forced out recently have all been black.

A few white judges from the country have been required to turn in their robes for various offenses, but a lot of black folk suspect a double standard applies around here.

All the black judges given the heave-ho deserved it, none more so than King, who coerced his staff on pain of dismissal into raising campaign cash and then repeatedly lied to the Judiciary Commission, unaware that his extortionate threats had been taped.

After the Supreme Court removed him from the bench in 2003, King, indicted for perjury and payroll fraud, was allowed to plead guilty to a reduced charge of conspiracy and received six months of unsupervised probation. That was an outrageously soft option, concocted by then-DA Eddie Jordan [who is black], but it was still a conviction and thus, according to the Attorney Disciplinary Board, sufficient grounds for disbarment.

Whether the practice of law should be reserved for sterling characters, or even serious sinners may earn redemption, could be a tricky one for the court as it ponders King's future. But it should be axiomatic that judges must be held to a higher standard than ordinary mortals.

If it is reasonable to demand absolute rectitude, then maybe Benge fell short, although her alleged offense does not put her in the top rank of dirty judges. She is accused of awarding damages to an undeserving plaintiff, Phil Demma, as a favor to his attorney, a campaign contributor.

It is not unknown for political considerations to influence decisions in Louisiana courts, or for judges to admit as much in private conversations with one another. Benge's misfortune was to discuss the case with Judge Ronnie Bodenheimer, who was guilty of much greater corruption and whose phone was tapped by the FBI.

This was all way back in 2001. Bodenheimer and several other members of the courthouse gang, including Demma, were soon off to prison, but no crime was alleged against Benge. However, the feds did finally get around to tipping off the Judiciary Commission, which recommended that the Supreme Court give her the heave-ho.

Considering that the case is an ancient one, and Demma was awarded only modest damages, perhaps there is a case for less draconian punishment than removal. Plenty of judges have faced no more than a suspension for pulling more dubious stunts than this.

When Judge Joel G. Davis of Allen Parish, for instance, was under investigation by the Judiciary Commission he proved as big a liar as King, but the Supreme Court suspended him for only 90 days.

Judge Wayne Cresap received even milder punishment for violating about half the Code of Judicial Conduct. He was ordered off the bench for 30 days. Cresap does not appear to have been scared straight, for he now awaits trial on charges of rigging bail bonds for cash and has stepped down from the bench of his own volition.

Davis and Cresap are both white. If that was an advantage for them, it may not be for Benge. Her case comes up just when the Supreme Court might feel the time has come to counter the perception of racial imbalance in matters of judicial discipline.

Copyright 2009, The Times-Picayune
Publishing Corporation

From: James Gill, "Clearing the bench," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, September 13, 2009, Metro, p. 7.  James Gill can be reached at jgill@timespicayune.com.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.