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Critiques of the Judiciary
“How many of you [judges] have called and asked me to 'handle' traffic tickets, or to get someone out of jail without bond, or to clear up contempt charges pending against friends?”

-- Jerrold Peterson
(Deceased, May 21, 2007)

The Dutiful Public Servant
Louisiana's Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal in Gretna charged the parish governments $300 for each of the 2,500 pro-se appeals it would not bother to read, netting the court $750,000 over the 13-year period of February, 1994 to May, 2007.  Jerrold Peterson was the court employee who was assigned the task of rejecting these appeals as well as fixing tickets and arranging other judicial favors for friends of the judges he worked for.  The anguished Peterson shot himself in his office and left suicide notes as a final whistleblower's lament.

In a suicide note, reflections on guilt
October 10, 2008

Convicts who can't afford an attorney — and there aren't many who can — know the odds are stacked against them if they file an appeal.

It is not unknown for inmates to have a legitimate grievance and for jailhouse lawyers to advance cogent and well-researched arguments on their behalf. But most "pro se" briefs are probably frivolous and nonsensical, and it is only natural that judges should tend to look askance as they buckle down to the task of reading them.

The judges weren't looking askance over at the state Court of Appeal in Gretna, however, because they weren't looking at all. For 13 years, the court ignored the lucubrations of all convicts who appealed on their own account.

This immoral and apparently illegal policy was in place until Jerrold Peterson, the staffer charged with implementing it, blew his brains out in May of last year. Peterson was driven to it in part, his suicide note suggested, by guilt over the nefarious tasks the judges made him perform.

In his note Peterson explained how the court gave indigent appellants the bum's rush.

Although every criminal writ application is supposed to be reviewed by three judges, he was deputed to winnow out any that had been filed pro se and arrange for their automatic rejection.

Thus were an estimated 2,500 appeals deep-sixed without any judicial consideration whatsoever.

That was not the only aspect of life at the Fifth Circuit that stuck in Peterson's craw. In his suicide note to the judges, he asked, "How many of you have called and asked me to 'handle' traffic tickets or to get someone out of jail without bond or to clear up contempt charges pending against friends? Never once have I declined to help someone you sent to me or refused to solve some problem you had."

Maybe the Judiciary Commission will be interested in the answer to those questions. But such ethical violations are small beer compared with the systematic denial of due process revealed by Peterson. So the state Supreme Court, after receiving petitions from hundreds of appellants spurned by an idle and unprincipled Fifth Circuit, has stepped in.  Kinda.

The solution, the Supreme Court has decided, can safely be entrusted to the idle and unprincipled Fifth Circuit, which kindly volunteered to take a belated look at the appeals once Peterson had blown the whistle.

The flaws of that arrangement might seem obvious, but only Justice John Weimer noticed.

In his dissent Weimer wrote that only another circuit or an ad-hoc panel could handle the review without an "appearance of impropriety."

Edward Dufresne, Chief Judge of the Fifth Circuit, took charge of pro se appeals in 1994. He then had Peterson prepare rulings denying writs for all of them and signed off "without so much as a glance," according to the suicide note. "No judge ever saw the writ application before the ruling was prepared by me," Peterson wrote in a second suicide note to the Judiciary Commission.

The rulings also bore the names, though not the signatures, of judges Marion Edwards and Wally Rothschild. Neither Edwards nor Rothschild had any clue as to what was in the applications, or even knew that they had been filed, according to Peterson.

Dufresne, Edwards and Rothschild will not participate in reviewing the old appeals, which will be left to three-judge panels drawn from their five colleagues.

But the arrangement must strike the public as fishy, if only because the Fifth Circuit may not be all that keen to uncover miscarriages of justice within its own walls.

Dufrense appears to be the villain of the piece, but it is hard to believe that not one of the other judges noticed they never saw a pro se appeal in 13 years. In his suicide note, Peterson seemed to blame them all, thus: "You completely ignore your own integrity in the handling of pro se criminal writ applications."

He also noted the court charged local government $300 for each pro se appeal. When you can read not a single word and still charge about $750,000, you have a good racket going.

And all the while those poor suckers in the pen — some of whom must surely have gotten a raw deal at trial — were beavering away under the illusion that the Fifth Circuit was in the business of dispensing justice and upholding the Constitution.

Copyright 2008, The Times-Picayune
Publishing Corporation

From: The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, October 10, 2008, 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.

Additional Reading
  1. Paul Purpura, "Judges ignored appeals, inmates allege; Court worker got them, petition says," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, July 1, 2008, National, p. 1.

  2. Paul Purpura, "5th Circuit ordered to review appeals; Due Process denied, Supreme Court says," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, October 7, 2008, Metro, p. 1.

  3. "A ruling for justice," [Editorial], The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, October 8, 2008, Metro, p. 6.

  4. Paul Purpura, "Proper route for appeals is disputed; Different judges should review challenged cases, lawyers say," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, October 18, 2008, National, p. 1.

  5. Andrea Shaw, "Cleaning up the mess; Who will review appeals ignored by 5th Circuit?" The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, October 26, 2008, Metro, p. 7.

  6. Paul Purpura, "5th Circuit to handle inmate appeals; State Supreme Court reaffirms its decision," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, November 1, 2008, Metro, p. 1.









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