Judge J. Robin Free, a West Baton Rouge judge, was recently suspended for 30 days by the Louisiana Supreme Court for taking an inappropriate personal trip with a lawyer in a case he had presided over. According to reports, Free took a hunting trip with a Texas attorney who just happened to have a $1.2 million personal injury lawsuit settled in Free’s court room a week earlier.
The case in question was filed on behalf of an oil field worker who received injuries while on the job. Attorneys, David Rumley and Joe Ritch of the Corpus Christi, Texas, hired local counsel, Antonio “Tony” Clayton from Port Allen to assist with the case. Allen was reportedly well known to Judge Free.
According to the Louisiana Supreme Court opinion, Mr. Clayton was an Assistant District Attorney for the same circuit as Judge Free and regularly appeared before Judge Free as counsel of record in various criminal and civil cases.
The oil worker’s case was settled in the beginning of 2010 and the trip occured only a week later in April 2010. Court documents reported that Free traveled on a private jet with Clayton and a few others to Rumley’s ranch. Free stayed without paying expenses of any kind and later went on a turkey hunt with the others.
After the evidence was presented and reviewed, the Supreme Court found that because judges should “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities”, Free’s behavior “violated judicial canons”.
Both Clayton and Free insisted that Judge Free was only interested in advising Clayton about a possible ranch purchase. Interestingly enough, the testimony from the trip’s participants was determined to be “not entirely credible.”
In the interest of ensuring that justice had ultimately been served in the earlier oil workers case, the Commission found that Free’s acceptance of the trip had no involvement in his settlement role the previous week.
The Commission also noted that Judge Free accepted responsibility for his actions and apologized for his misconduct. He also assured the Commission that similar misconduct would never be repeated.
Free is also being ordered to reimburse and pay to the Commission $6,723.64 in associated costs. However, legal watch groups are calling into question the length of the suspension, as well as the severity of the punishment. Several groups are claiming that the incident points to serious problems with the Louisiana judicial system.
Melissa Landry, of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, asked, “Is a month long suspension really the appropriate sanction for a judge who has (by the court’s own admission) ‘harmed the integrity of and respect for’ the judiciary?”
Opponents are going as far as to call Free’s actions a “…stunning and recurrent lack of good judgment…”. Many groups say there is a lack of discipline and oversight exercised by the Louisiana judiciary that is deeply troubling.
“Simply put, we need reform. If the judiciary is unwilling or unable to hold themselves to a high standard of ethical conduct, then we must call on the governor and the legislature to hold them to that standard. Improving transparency and accountability throughout the judiciary are a must,” says Laundry.
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