In 2010, Robin Free got an offer he should have refused. A man named Tony Clayton took him on an all-expenses-paid trip on a private jet from Louisiana to an exclusive Texas ranch where they went turkey hunting and feasted on boiled crawfish.
There was just one problem.
Free was a judge in the 18th Judicial District in Louisiana. And the free trip was organized and paid for by attorneys with a personal injury case before him at the time.
Clayton was an attorney for the plaintiff in the case. The plane that whisked Free to the ranch was owned by the plaintiff attorneys’ law firm. And the private ranch was owned by another of the plaintiff’s lawyers.
The Louisiana Constitution and Code of Judicial Conduct make clear that judges aren’t allowed to accept any gifts from lawyers or parties who have cases before them or might in the future. Judges must avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Free should have known that. By 2010, he had been a district judge for at least 13 years.
Even though there is no evidence that the Texas trip influenced Free’s judicial decision – the case settled for $1.2 million a week before he took the trip – it qualified as a major ethical breach. In 2014, the Louisiana Supreme Court suspended Free for 30 days without pay and imposed a nearly $7,000 fine. The high court said Free had “harmed the integrity of and respect for the judiciary.”
It wasn’t his first – or his last – time.
Free is one of at least five judges across Louisiana who have violated their oaths repeatedly and abused their judicial authority, according to a review of state Supreme Court judicial misconduct opinions conducted by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. These judges failed to recuse themselves from trials, ignored financial reporting requirements and disregarded rules that ensure fair and impartial trials.
It takes a lot for a judge to get publicly disciplined once, let alone twice.
If someone has a complaint about a judge, he or she files it with the Louisiana Judiciary Commission, a nine-member body that investigates judicial misconduct. In 2015, the commission received 529 complaints about judges, according to the Supreme Court’s annual report. The vast majority were screened out and determined not to fall under the commission’s jurisdiction. After investigating, the commission formally charged six judges with misconduct last year. Two were recommended for public discipline with the Supreme Court in 2015.
Supreme Court sanctions are supposed to send a serious signal to judges that misconduct will not be tolerated. In the last decade, more than 40 have been publicly disciplined by Louisiana’s high court. But at least five of those judges didn’t learn their lesson. After being publicly reprimanded once, they went on to abuse their positions again – often for the same types of offenses.
There was Roger Adams, a justice of the peace for the Parish of Avoyelles in central Louisiana. In 2007, he was suspended without pay for 15 days for issuing arrest warrants for two men for a parade permit violation and setting excessively high bonds – $50,000 each – in retaliation for the men’s political opposition to the mayor. Less than a year after he was disciplined, Adams visited a local jail and signed a divorce judgment for an inmate for $10, even though, as a justice of the peace, he didn’t have the authority to do so. As a result, he was suspended without pay in 2011 for a year, put on two-year probation and forced to attend classes to learn his duties as a justice of the peace. He is still serving an elected term. Adams could not be reached for comment.
There was Stacie Myers, a longtime justice of the peace for Pointe Coupee Parish, near Baton Rouge. In 2009, she failed to turn in an annual financial disclosure document, which is required of all judges. The judiciary commission and Supreme Court reprimanded her and ordered her to pay a $500 fine. But she continued to ignore the reporting rules and landed in front of the commission two more times. Rather than pay her fines, Myers ignored a 2012 penalty for $1,500, blew off disciplinary hearings with the commission and ignored a court order. Myers was stripped of her judgeship in May.
The Supreme Court didn’t mince words in removing her from the bench: “A judicial officer who refuses to abide by the law and refuses to comply with a court order is not worthy of holding the title of judge and sitting in judgment of others.” Myers could not be reached for comment.
Myers was one of seven judges to be removed from office by the Supreme Court in the last decade, according to a spokesman for the high court. The four other judges who appeared before the Supreme Court multiple times for misconduct faced fines and suspensions.
Robin Free had a long history of judicial misconduct, too, especially when it came to recusing himself from cases in which he had a conflict of interest.
Free was admonished by the judiciary commission in 2001 after he failed to recuse himself from a case in which he knew the defendant. He previously had prosecuted the defendant in a different case when he was an assistant district attorney.
He also was reprimanded in 2001 for a separate incident in which he failed to recuse himself from a criminal case involving a former client from his private practice who still owed him attorney’s fees. According to the summary of the complaint, Free accepted the past-due fees and then “unrecused” himself from the case. After being censured by the judiciary commission, Free assured its members that he would be more mindful of recusing himself from cases in the future.
In 2009, Free was presiding over an environmental class-action lawsuit brought by residents of Plaquemine who said their groundwater was contaminated by vinyl chloride, a toxic and cancer-causing chemical. Free’s mother lived within the boundaries of the contaminated groundwater plume and was therefore part of the affected class in the lawsuit, according to the Supreme Court opinion.
Lawyers for the Dow Chemical Co., a defendant in the case, brought this up in a letter to Free, arguing that he should recuse himself from the case. Rather than schedule a conference to discuss the issue, Free called Dow’s lawyers directly. Judges aren’t allowed to conduct private, or ex parte, interviews with lawyers that may influence the case when the other side is not present, according to the Code of Judicial Conduct. Free knew this: He had been warned by the judiciary commission in 2000 not to conduct these types of private conversations. But in his phone call with Dow, Free told the lawyers that it was a “cheap shot” to bring up the conflict of interest and refused to recuse himself.
That’s when Dow’s lawyers filed a complaint with the judiciary commission, which later found that Free should have recused himself from the lawsuit and that the private phone call “infused bias into his judicial decisions.”
After he was charged formally, Free acknowledged that his call to Dow’s lawyers was wrong and promised the commission that similar misconduct would never happen again.
But it did. Last month, Free again was disciplined by the Supreme Court for multiple counts of judicial misconduct.
Free did not respond to calls for comment.
One of the recent charges stemmed from a vehicular homicide case against Jerry Jordan. Jordan was accused in 2009 of piloting a boat while drunk on the False River in Pointe Coupee Parish and crashing into another boat, killing three young men and injuring another. The families of the young men sued.
After a court hearing in April 2011, Free met privately with members of the district attorney’s office and members of the victims’ families after a hearing in the courtroom’s lounge, according to the judiciary commission’s complaint. He allegedly criticized the defense counsel for not wanting to go to trial with him as the judge because he “puts people in jail.” According to one person at the meeting, Free told the victims’ families, “I would have put him in jail for you,” referring to Jordan.
Free told the commission that he had stumbled into the meeting accidentally as he was trying to get coffee. He later admitted the meeting was a mistake and that his comments reflected “poor judgment.”
After talking to the families, Free failed to recuse himself from the case, even though at least one of the family members thought his comments would cause the case to end in a mistrial. The state Supreme Court decided that Free should have recused himself because he “put himself in a position where his impartiality could be reasonably questioned by the defendant and his counsel.”
The judiciary commission also accused Free of improperly holding defendants in contempt of court and jailing them without following state law and of joking about domestic violence in his courtroom in front of women who had been abused. In one case in which a man was accused of domestic abuse battery, Free joked with a lawyer in court: “So, if you choke them, that’s a felony. If you punch them in the eye, that’s a misdemeanor. … If you punch them in the eye and then choke them, they’ll never know you choked them.”
In its June opinion, the Supreme Court wrote that Free’s misconduct is “serious, not isolated, and evidences a pattern of improper comments, injudicious behavior, and failure to follow the law.” They suspended Free without pay for a year and forced him to pay a fine of more than $11,000 – a sentence deemed too light by some critics.
In an editorial this month, The Advocate, Louisiana’s largest daily newspaper, said the high court had let Free off easy with a one-year suspension. Even though Free was reelected to the bench in 2014 to serve a term through 2020, the editorial said “the oversight of the voters is simply not enough.”
“Free should resign,” the editorial board wrote. “But the high court is not doing its job allowing him to remain on the court.”
This story was edited by Fernando Diaz and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Amy Julia Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @amyjharris.