Judicial discipline up close: Joan Benge speaks out about being thrown off the bench
The Louisiana Supreme Court has described its power to remove the state's elected judges as an "awesome responsibility" that it wields "not simply to punish an individual judge, but to purge the judiciary of any taint."
Joan Benge still wonders just how the taint got stuck all over her black robe, or what she did to make her the only Louisiana state judge in a decade to be dismissed from the bench.
"How is the public protected by kicking me off the bench? I don't know," Benge, 63, said in an interview last week, opening up for the first time about the Supreme Court removing her from office in 2009 after a humbling process that dragged on for years.
"It's ridiculous," she said, weeping at times during the interview. "They held their nose and threw me out just in case. But they were wrong."
Whether Benge deserved to be taken to the Supreme Court's woodshed 10 years ago remains a sore point with the ex-judge and a cadre of her supporters in legal circles.
Among them, Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick rehired Benge as an assistant district attorney in 2015, not long after she'd won back her suspended law license.
If Benge's removal is a case study in how the judicial discipline system functions in Louisiana, it's also a lesson in delayed response. The decision in Benge's case came eight years and two reelections after she had issued a court ruling that at least placed her on the scene of a criminal conspiracy, caught on FBI wiretaps during the "Wrinkled Robe" investigation of corruption in the Jefferson Parish courthouse, circa 2001.
Benge claims that she caught a whiff of something funny in the conversations that the FBI recorded between her and Judge Ronald Bodenheimer, a key figure in the probe, over her pending ruling in a low-watt personal injury case. But she maintains she was never clued into a conspiracy that Bodenheimer was playing out to steer her decision.
The conspiracy was at the heart of the case the Judiciary Commission pursued against her, a long-dangling branch of the much wider embarrassment from multiple scandals that the feds exposed inside the Gretna courthouse.
Bodenheimer began to mentor her when she took the bench early in 2001, about 10 months before their wiretapped conversations and her subsequent decision-making in the personal injury case would derail her career.
Bodenheimer later admitted that he schemed with an associate, Phil Demma, to wheedle a plump award from Benge in a lawsuit Demma had filed over a cracked tooth he blamed on a fender-bender which he eventually admitted was a lie before heading off to federal prison over it.
Benge held a bench trial, then waited to rule. She says she struggled. But in a wiretapped phone call before her judgment, Benge offered Bodenheimer a laundry list of reasons the Supreme Court counted 17 of them that made her want to "zero" the case and award Demma nothing.
Not least among them, Benge had spotted a man in the courtroom gallery, pantomiming responses toward the witness stand as Demma testified at the trial. Benge soon learned that the man "clinking his teeth together" was Demma's dentist, a key witness.
Bodenheimer had been angling for Demma's help to score a lucrative seafood vendor deal with restaurateur Al Copeland. Still a respected judge at the time, he had urged Benge to award about $20,000 to Demma. Benge told Bodenheimer her only hesitation in denying Demma any damages was his attorney, John Venezia.
"Besides helping John, help Phil (Demma), 'cuz he'll be there for you," Bodenheimer told her.
"Huh?" Benge responded.
"He'll be there for you when you need him," Bodenheimer repeated. "He helped me big time."
By the time Benge appeared before the Supreme Court to publicly defend her conduct, that "Huh?" helped seal her fate. It was evidence of the moment, at the latest, when Benge should have recused herself from the case.
The money she would award to Demma $2,000 in damages, for a total award of about $4,200 with interest prompted Demma to appeal the judgment and pledge to run an opponent against her in the next race.
With no evidence she'd gained anything, federal prosecutors passed on going after Benge.
The Judiciary Commission had initiated a complaint against her in 2003, sourced to newspaper stories with details of her involvement culled from Demma's federal guilty plea. The complaint remained shelved for years while the federal case played out and beyond, until the FBI sent over records and the commission picked it up again in 2008.
The Judiciary Commission lawyer who served as prosecutor in Benge's case urged a six-month suspension. After a closed-door hearing, though, the commission recommended Benge's removal from the bench. Benge recalls standing confidently with her supporters on the steps of the Supreme Court building in the French Quarter after the pivotal 2009 hearing.
"We were celebrating. We thought we won. We thought we did it, pulled it off. It was going to be OK," Benge said. "We're like, 'They got it.'"
They didn't. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court said it didn't believe Benge. The tapes had betrayed her, the court found. So did the testimony of Venezia, Demma's attorney, who had contributed to Benge's campaign. Venezia recounted running into Benge at a Christmas party soon after her ruling. He said Benge told him it was "because of you" that she gave Demma anything.
Whatever it was that influenced her award to Demma her close relationship with Bodenheimer, a desire to please Venezia, future political support it wasn't the evidence and testimony, the court found.
The court acknowledged that Benge didn't fit within any of the categories it had previously specified as warranting removal of a judge.
Her lawyer at the time, Franz Zibilich, now an Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judge, has said he was "shocked" by the decision. Benge's supporters included 163 lawyers who signed a petition that the high court declined to entertain.
The court found Benge committed willful misconduct. And their penalty left Benge dumbstruck.
When she mocked Demma's case to Bodenheimer, she was still deliberating, Benge insists. Her comments about favoring Venezia weren't personal, she said, but reflected a savvy 11th-hour legal argument that tipped her award to his client.
Benge also said she presented ample evidence to the Supreme Court that it was her law clerk who settled on the sum she awarded Demma, and that she agreed with it. Benge said the court brushed over that and other evidence she presented to defend her decision in Demma's case. Ultimately, she said, her sin was in missing the scent of corruption.
"It wasn't sitting well with my gut. It's like I had a whiff that something was wrong, but I didn't quite have it," she said. "The whole thing is a fraud in front of me. I mean, give me a break. I'm supposed to detect that? Who can detect that? The whole thing was corruption. I didn't know, but I had a whiff."
At the time, some critics suspected race was a factor in the Supreme Court's decision, seeing it as an attempt at racial leveling after a series of removals or suspension of black judges in the state.
Benge, who is white, points to the notoriety of the criminal probe into the Jefferson Parish court.
"I was just caught in this tidal wave," she said. "The temperature of the water, my God, it was 'Wrinkled Robe.' I was one of the judges on that bench and Ronnie (Bodenheimer) was an acquaintance of mine and a close one, a mentor."
But, she added: "That was his agenda, not mine. I didn't know what he was doing."
Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University law professor and an expert on legal ethics in Louisiana, said the Supreme Court's removal of Benge had a purpose.
"One of the whole points of removing a judge is to send a message statewide that there will be serious consequences for judicial misconduct," Ciolino said. "Sometimes you hear litigants complain that 'the fix was in.' Well, when the fix really was in, you gotta do something about it."
Yet Ciolino also noted the court's decision in 2014 to reinstate Benge's law license: "It shows the Supreme Court didn't think what she did was horrible, that they thought she was fit enough to be a lawyer again."
Bodenheimer, who was out of prison two years before the court jettisoned Benge, said the high court missed the mark.
"I just don't think that what she did was anything at all," he said, describing Benge as caught in a vortex of shame around the federal probe. "Everybody in Jefferson Parish was persona non grata. They hit about five judges. Joan just fell into it because of that recording."
Connick said rehiring Benge, who now works as a case screener, was a "no-brainer," adding that he thought she was a good prosecutor and judge.
"I think she got caught up in circumstances at the time. I thought suspension was a fair punishment," Connick said. "She made a mistake. Do I think she's capable of conspiring with Ronnie Bodenheimer or anyone? No. Sometimes intent is not the whole issue. I just thought it was a little bit overboard."
Sometimes, Benge said, she can't help but lament her judicial downfall as she walks the courthouse where she once presided. Not that she couldn't be a judge again. She can. All she needs is a certification from the Judiciary Commission.
"I'd love to be a judge again. It's an honor," she said, adding that she has no immediate plans to run. "I wouldn't say never."
Copyright 2020, NOLA.com
From: John Simerman, "Judicial discipline up close: Joan Benge speaks out about being thrown off the bench," NOLA.com, New Orleans, December 30, 2019, https://www.nola.com/news/courts/article_8b1b6132-29b0-11ea-80d2-6335c5a5275f.html, accessed 12/31/2019. Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C.