Critiques of the Judiciary
Summer School for Judges often turns out to be a day at the beach and taxpayers foot the bill
[But some judges prefer the Jamaican Sunset venue]JEFFREY MEITRODT and JAMES VARNEYJune 18, 2006
SANDESTIN, FLA. With a baseball cap, sunglasses and skin tanned the color of Worcestershire sauce, 34th Judicial District Judge Jacques Sanborn plopped into a seaside chair at the Tops'l Beach & Racquet Resort and admired the multi-hued vista over the Gulf of Mexico. Simultaneously, on the bay side of the popular vacation area, about 80 of his colleagues boned up on recent developments in traffic law and death cases. They were engrossed in continuing legal education "CLE" in the shorthand of the legal community, and the ostensible purpose of Sanborn's visit to the Panhandle. He was there to attend what's called "Summer School for Judges," the biggest, best-attended event on Louisiana's CLE calendar. Over the course of the weeklong event, judges and lawyers have been able to earn up to 25 hours of credit, or twice the mandated annual requirement of 12.5 hours. But like most conference attendees, Sanborn wasn't pushing himself too hard. Though he planned to stay in Florida for the rest of the week, he hadn't registered for the second half of the program, which offers judges a chance to brush up on their courtroom skills during a three-day seminar known as "Nuts & Bolts." Asked whether he was playing hooky, Sanborn said he planned to attend bar association meetings later in the day and the following afternoon. But he grew testy when asked how many family members had accompanied him on his annual Sandestin trip. "It's none of your business," he said. "My family is my business." Though Sanborn and many of his colleagues may regard their traditional week at the Tops'l or another nearby resort as a personal or family matter, Louisiana taxpayers underwrite the jaunt to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. The Sandestin conference offers an array of educational offerings for judges, but it has taken on the trappings of a paid vacation for them and their families. Judges receive generous housing allowances with which they rent exclusive beachfront homes or deluxe condominiums, and they typically avail themselves of daily reimbursements that exceed federal guidelines. Education vs. relaxation The courthouse crowd's annual Sandestin get-together unfolds against an academic environment that is far from rigorous, and education often takes a back seat to relaxation. Despite ample opportunity to complete CLE requirements during their week in Florida, nearly half of the local judges who attended in 2004 failed to do so, a review of their transcripts shows. The Louisiana Supreme Court waived the 2005 CLE requirements due to Hurricane Katrina and not all of this year's paperwork has been completed, making 2004 the last year for which a full set of Sandestin CLE records is available. Altogether this year, 214 judges and other court officials from Louisiana traveled to Sandestin for summer school during the week of June 4. The group included 52 judges who work at courts in the seven-parish New Orleans area, including the Supreme Court and two appeals courts. The state's showing was down slightly from last year, when the event drew 234 judges and court officials, including 66 judges from the New Orleans area. The most notable absence was Orleans Parish Criminal Court, which traditionally sends a half-dozen judges but this year sent none. The conference kicked off just three days after the courthouse at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street reopened. By contrast, St. Tammany's 22nd Judicial District sent nine of its 10 judges, according to the judicial administrator there. That kind of participation makes Sandestin an expensive proposition . In 2004, it cost $238,231 to send 73 local judges to the conference, an average cost of $3,219 per judge. Included among the attendees were 10 judges over the age of 65, at which point the state CLE mandate expires. The Sandestin blowout absorbed 40 percent of the $590,591 that was spent on continuing legal education by local jurists in 2004, records show. CLE costs are covered through taxpayer dollars and courthouse fees. Of course, not every judge goes to Sandestin each year. Records indicate that one-third of the 125 judges who have served on benches in New Orleans or the surrounding parishes haven't been to Sandestin in the past three years. Some judges are openly uncomfortable with the arrangement. One of them is Martha Sassone, who has handled cases in Jefferson Parish's 24th Judicial District for 16 years. She attended the Sandestin conference only once, in her second or third year on the bench, she said. "After that first time, I just thought it was a very expensive proposition and I made a decision I wasn't going to use public funds to do that," Sassone said. "I guess my philosophy is different from some other judges, but I don't feel comfortable spending that much money on CLE, especially when we've laid off people in the 24th and say we have all these post-Katrina budget issues." Sassone stressed that she's not questioning the spending habits of any specific judge, but from a general standpoint she harbors doubts about the week's validity. She said she focuses her CLE on local classes and a short Biloxi, Miss., conference, called "CLE by the Sea," sponsored by the Jefferson Bar Association. Nor is the Sandestin conference the sort of event that might be tolerated in neighboring states. A survey of CLE practices in 10 other Southern states, from Missouri to Florida, shows that even without a financial blow like Katrina, the lavish expenditure on a Sandestin-like gathering is frowned upon. Texas, for example, allows no reimbursement for out-of-state CLE conferences, and judges in Georgia can get reimbursement for just one out-of-state trip every three years, officials said. At in-state conferences, Georgia judges get reimbursed for meals at a lower rate than the one set by the federal government and receive only a partial reimbursement on lodging, said Rich Reaves of Georgia's Institute for Continuing Judicial Education. Louisiana judges are permitted chow down at a rate that, in Sandestin, is almost three times the feds' and often receive full reimbursement for their sometimes lavish lodgings. At Georgia's Spring Conference last year, for instance, judges got reimbursed $138 at a conference where the nightly lodging rate was $169. "That cap is imposed not by law but by budget," Reaves said, noting Georgia can't afford to pay big tabs. He was astounded by both the concept of Sandestin and the amount of time Louisiana judges spend off the bench and on CLE. "We never have anything like that," Reaves said. "I can't imagine anything like that." Generous allowances State law requires lawyers and judges to complete 12.5 hours of CLE, including course work in professionalism and ethics, each year. Sandestin's education smorgasbord features a "Summer School for Judges," which is comprised of seminars run singly or jointly by the Louisiana Judicial College and the Louisiana Bar Association, as well as the "Nuts & Bolts" seminar geared exclusively toward judges and courthouse personnel. Generous allowances help the Louisiana judges enjoy Sandestin in style, records and eyewitness surveys the past two years show. For instance, many jurists take advantage of a $2,314.50 lodging subsidy and a $115 per diem for meals and incidentals, both figures fixed by the state Supreme Court justices. The justices and appeal court judges are provided with an extra dollop of housing assistance, raising their housing ceiling to $2,601.50 and $2,365, respectively. The hefty per diem is paid in a lump sum and requires no receipts. At $115, it tops what federal employees are entitled to in Sandestin by $72, a daily difference the Internal Revenue Service considers taxable income for Louisiana judges. Although classes are offered on six days, there are numerous examples of judges tacking on travel days and thus claiming eight days in Sandestin and a payment of $920. But even with those bookend days accounted for, a comparison of expense reports with CLE transcripts shows many judges pocket a per diem on days when they received no credit for class work. And now and then a random charge, at times an eye-popping one, gets tossed on the bill, too. In 2003, for instance, 4th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge James McKay, who collected several hundred dollars in per diems that year, also went to the Elephant Walk, an elegant and pricey restaurant, now defunct, that was next door to the Sandestin Hilton. It's not clear how many judges joined him or what they ate and drank because McKay never submitted an itemized bill. Instead, he simply wrote "lunch with judges" and claimed a reimbursement of $1,633.22. Third Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Michael Sullivan said that Sandestin is a unique opportunity and he goes every year, but he is troubled by what he considers a relaxed attitude by some of his colleagues toward the conference's true purpose. "This is a real treat, this is the vacation I take every year, and I can't stand to see judges abuse this," he said. Asked if he thought some judges had abused it, Sullivan, without citing any specific judge, said, "Based on some of the spending I see reported, yes." In 2004, the most expensive week was rung up by Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny, who spent $4,684.50, records show. His two-bedroom condo at the Tops'l Beach Manor cost $2,355.02, but Derbigny paid just $40.52 of that out of his own pocket. Derbigny also got $920 in per diems because he was in Sandestin for eight days. During that time he earned eight CLE credits, all at the "Nuts & Bolts" seminar, even though he spent another $775 to register for the Summer School and the Bar Association conference, at which he received no credit, according to transcripts. Last week, Derbigny insisted he did attend additional classes and forgot to fill out the paperwork. He noticed the glitch back in 2004 and asked a secretary to take up the matter with the Supreme Court, but apparently it was never rectified, he said. "Quite frankly, that was just something that got caught up in the wash," he said. Because he actually attended the classes at which he received no credit, Derbigny insisted it was proper that he collected the $115 per diem every day. "I don't think it's reasonable to take a per diem on days in which I didn't go to class, and I think that would be a slap in the face to the public and the taxpayer," he said. "I'm certain it was just an oversight." Valuable experience Judges who regularly enroll in summer school defend its scholarly benefits, insisting taxpayers get a solid bang for their buck. They argue that the public would be as ill-served by a judiciary not current with legal thinking as a patient would be by an outdated physician. Not only are the classes valuable, judges say, but so is the chance to consult off the record with their peers and hundreds of the lawyers who regularly practice in front of them. The Louisiana State Bar Association typically schedules its annual meeting in Sandestin to run at the same time. "The Sandestin conference is one of the healthiest things we do as a judiciary," said Madeleine Landrieu, one of three Orleans Parish Civil District Court judges who have been to Sandestin each of the past three years. "We learn from each other and we learn what good practices are happening in our neighboring courts," Landrieu said. "It is an extraordinary conference. We get a lot of work done. As a matter of fact, I usually work so hard at these conferences that I usually don't even bring my family." That hard work, however, is not reflected on Landrieu's CLE transcripts. Those show that although she racked up more than $4,000 in expenses at Sandestin in 2004, she failed to earn a single hour of education credit. And the following month, she jetted to Jamaica for another CLE program, spending more than $3,000. Regarding Sandestin 2004, Landrieu said she didn't recall attending any CLE classes, but she said it's possible she went to a few and simply didn't fill out the required form for credit. She was the only judge who earned no credit at Sandestin, transcripts show. That contrasts with her usual procedure, she acknowledged, and overall records show she earned 42 hours of CLE credit that year. "Simply because I do not put in for CLE credit does not mean I did not attend the CLE," she said. "If I've already got what the Supreme Court requires, I may attend and not seek credit because what good does it do?" Judge Reginald Badeaux of the 22nd Judicial District also had little to show for his 2004 trip. Though lodging records indicate he spent seven days on the Panhandle, he earned just 5.7 hours of credit for the conferences. Furthermore, he earned no credit at the "Nuts & Bolts" program, despite paying the $250 registration fee. Badeaux is one of the local judges who chooses even more opulent lodging than might be available on the resort grounds. Instead, he typically rents a cottage down the coast in Seaside, a resort community that provided the setting for the movie, "The Truman Show." With the $2,314.50 reimbursement, Badeaux and his wife spent less than $500 of their own money in 2004 to rent a three-bedroom house with a wraparound porch and enough space to sleep eight, records show. He did not respond to several requests for an interview. Fun for whole family While the judges insist Sandestin is not a subsidized family vacation, they acknowledge the housing allowance provides a chance for luxurious living while paying next to nothing out-of-pocket. Some years judges such as Landrieu, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Raymond Bigelow, and Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Victory rent sprawling beachfront houses in Four Mile Village next to the Tops'l that go for close to $3,000 a week. In 2004, Bigelow said his sons and some of their friends accompanied him. Paul Sens, another municipal court judge from New Orleans who regularly attends the conference, said the idea of spending time on the beach with his family is a powerful draw. "That's part of the incentive to be here," Sens said. "You can get your (CLE) time in and still relax. And trust me, I need it." This year, Sens brought along his wife and 19-year-old son. He said he's been coming to the conference since his son was in diapers. "I pay my fair share of the expenses for my family," said Sens, who shelled out $1,627 to cover the cost of his Tops'l condo in 2004 after maxing out his housing allowance. "The court doesn't pay all my expenses." Judges note the CLE requirement is mandatory and that most of them have no hand in choosing Sandestin as a location. "If they had it in New Orleans, I'd be there," said Sean Early, an Orleans Parish Municipal Court judge who regularly attends the conference. "If they had it in Westwego, I'd go to Westwego." In fact, all CLE requirements can be met through conferences in New Orleans and other in-state locales, if not Westwego. No picnic Though he spends a lot of time on the beach, Sens said the conference is no picnic. "This is not a family vacation," he said. "These are not a bunch of fluff classes. We are taught by experts and there is some important give-and-take with the judges." This year, for instance, the conference included sessions on such topics as "Effective Jury Communication," "Sentencing Practices and Procedures" and "Advanced Cross-Examination." Another session, which featured four law school professors and three judges, focused on recent developments in the law and civil procedure. "A big-time trial attorney did the session on cross-examination techniques, and it was incredibly entertaining," Plaquemines Parish Judge William Roe said. "The guy was hilarious. But it was also helpful in terms of the evidentiary rules about cross-examination. We got to sit there and listen to a really good attorney talk about how you should cross-examine a witness, which helps you in terms of what should be allowed, and what shouldn't be allowed, in your courtroom." Sanborn, who oversees drug cases for juveniles in St. Bernard Parish, said the most interesting thing he picked up in Sandestin this year is a method for breaking up the sentences for nonviolent offenders. Instead of giving an offender a sentence that is either all jail time or probation, a new law lets judges impose a short prison sentence and suspend the rest of the time if the offender can stay out of trouble for six months. If not, the offender goes back to jail to finish the sentence. "I didn't realize we could do that," Sanborn said. "It's a statute a lot of judges didn't know about." But the academics at Sandestin are a far cry from law school. In 2004, almost half of the attending judges stayed in Sandestin for a full week but went to class on only four days, according to Supreme Court records. During lectures judges often step outside the room and mill about a breakfast buffet or chat on cell phones in the hallways. Some leave seminars early or arrive late. Rock hits, movie clips The courses, too, are a curious mix. For instance, last year's conference kicked off with a three-hour musical program called "Ethics Rock," which the presenter, Jack Marshall, described as a "tuneful and nostalgic legal ethics seminar." Marshall used rock hits from the 1960s to create parodies of what he calls "complex legal ethics scenarios." The conference ended with an offering called "Movie Magic: How the Masters Try Cases." The 2½-hour program featured film clips from more than a dozen movies, including "My Cousin Vinny," "Miracle on 34th Street" and "To Kill a Mockingbird." Among the lessons offered by moderator Steve Rosen, a trial lawyer from Portland, Ore.: "You don't have to be Gregory Peck to succeed." The class, which satisfied the CLE "professionalism" component, was clearly aimed at trial lawyers, and some judges acknowledged it was a stretch to take credit for it. "I don't know how they expected us to benefit from that," Roe said. While some legal conferences last all day, Summer School for Judges is a considerably more relaxed affair. Sessions typically start at 8 a.m. and finish about noon, leaving judges with plenty of free time. Many judges trek down to the beach with their children or spouses in tow. This year, Ethel Simms Julien, the chief judge of Orleans Civil District Court, had a poolside lunch with her husband, lawyer Henry Julien, as soon as classes ended on Monday. "You do spend time on the beach I don't deny that," Simms Julien said the next day. "But it gives you time to relax and talk to other judges about how they do things. You may laugh and talk about other things, but eventually you also talk about cases. So you get a lot out of it." Other judges said they spend much of their free time writing opinions in their rooms or getting together with their peers to discuss ways to improve the judiciary. This year, for instance, Landrieu said she and several other judges spent two hours with a handful of their colleagues around the state who were recently elected to the bench. They didn't go anywhere fancy for lunch: Landrieu said the group ate turkey sandwiches in a hotel conference room. "We gathered together to answer their questions and build camaraderie so they know they have a place to go when they have problems," Landrieu said. To be sure, Landrieu isn't the only judge who has skipped a class or two in Sandestin. Of the 63 local judges who attended the conference in 2004 and are not exempt from CLE requirements, 41 judges skipped at least one session, including 16 judges who earned 10 credits or less, transcripts show. In 2004, judges could obtain a maximum of 15 credits during summer school. Jefferson Parish Judge George Giacobbe, who works in 1st Parish Court, also earned very little credit for his work in Sandestin in 2004. But Giacobbe, who didn't register for summer school, said he spent two nights in Sandestin only because he had been asked to speak at the "Nuts & Bolts" conference about a computer program he put together for criminal courts. He earned six credits and spent a little more than $1,000 on his trip, records show. "I think it is overpriced, and it is really too hot," said Giacobbe, who hasn't attended summer school since 2002. "We're not big beach people. And what is the point of going to Florida if you are not going to hang out on the beach?"Copyright 2006, The Times-Picayune
From: Jeffrey Meitrodt and James Varney, "Judicial Privilege; Summer School for Judges often turns out to be a day at the beach and taxpapers foot the bill," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, June 18, 2006,
p. A-1. Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107for a non-profit educational purpose. Jeffrey Meitrodt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and James Varney can be reached at email@example.com. See also: Paul Purpura, "Lull hits court as judges vacation..." The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, June 4, 2011, Metro, p. B-4.
EndnoteAt least one judge, William A. Roe, discovered that by attending legal seminars at resort locations, he could reap additional rewards by filing expense reports with more than one agency and receiving multiple reimbursements.1 In 2008, Roe was accused of improperly obtaining double reimbursements in the years 2005, 2006 and 2007, and he was suspended from the bench.2 Although the former state judge faced up to 15 years in prison for pocketing about $6,000, the charges of felony theft were dropped by ad hoc trial judge Jerome Winsberg, who decided to treat him with leniency as a first-time offender.3 Roe had requested that he not be tried by a jury, and additionally pleaded that he should be acquitted altogether.4 However, on January 6, 2010, Judge Winsberg sentenced him to a term of 3-months in prison and 18-months of probation.5 Roe, who had remained free on bond, appealed his case to the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal on November 3, 2010.6 However, the appellate court affirmed his conviction, and on November 14, 2011, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to hear his case,7 thereby obligating Roe to fulfill the terms of his sentence.8 The former judge considers his sentence the product of an "irrational and hateful crusade" against him.9,10References
- Meghan Gordon, "Judge accused of theft turns self in; Plaquemines jurist indicted after audit," The Times-Picayune, July 15, 2008, National,
- Meghan Gordon, "Supreme Court suspends judge; Plaquemines jurist faces criminal charges," The Times-Picayune, August 2, 2008, Metro,
- Paul Purpura, "Former judge guilty of using public funds; But he's acquitted of all theft charges," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, September 16, 2010,
National, p. 1.
- Paul Rioux, "Convicted ex-judge requesting acquittal; Sentencing delayed for verdict challenge," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, October 10, 2009, Metro,
- Paul Purpura, "Former judge gets 3-month sentence; Felonies reduced to misdemeanors," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, January 7, 2010,
National, p. 1.
- Paul Purpura, "Court hears convicted judge's appeal; Former Plaquemines jurist faces prison," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, November 4, 2010,
Metro, p. 3.
- Paul Purpura, "Former judge appears headed for jail; He faces 3 months for pocketing $6,000," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, November 16, 2011,
Metro, p. 1.
- Paul Purpura, "Ex-judge heads to prison soon; Roe's bid for lighter sentence is rejected," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, December 7, 2011,
Metro, p. 1.
- "Jail for ex-judge" [Editorial] The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, December 12, 2011,
Metro, p. 3.
- William A. Roe, "Editorial is mean-spirited" [Letter] The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, December 14, 2011,
Metro, p. 4.
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