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Benching the Judges


The reputation of Louisiana's 371-member judiciary -- injured two years ago by the conviction of a Baton Rouge judge on federal corruption charges and by last year's brawl between two appellate court judges in New Orleans -- has been bruised yet again. The Louisiana Supreme Court has issued interim suspensions against two local trial court judges: Judge Ronald D. Bodenheimer of the 24th Judicial District Court in Jefferson Parish and New Orleans Criminal Court Judge Sharon K. Hunter. Both face removal from the bench as a result of separate disciplinary charges.

Bodenheimer is under house arrest and a $150,000 bond after FBI agents arrested him for allegedly conspiring to frame a man on drug charges. Bodenheimer is accused of arranging for the narcotic OxyContin to be placed in the vehicle of a man who had complained to authorities since 1999 about alleged illegal activities at the judge's Venetian Isles Marina in eastern New Orleans. According to a transcript of wiretapped conversations, Bodenheimer responded to a private investigator's suggestion of physical harm to the man by saying: "I want to hurt him more than that."

A 20-year veteran prosecutor for district attorneys in Orleans, St. Tammany and Jefferson parishes, Bodenheimer has served on the bench for three years. By all accounts, he has been a tough judge. In fact, on Nov. 30 he set an unofficial record for meting out the longest prison sentence in Jefferson Parish history -- sentencing a remorseless armed robber to 881 years in prison.

In a 1999 case, five people protested the trial and sentencing of convicted Avondale cocaine dealer Wayne Lewis. Bodenheimer sentenced Lewis to 55 years as a multiple offender. Lewis' mother, who accused the judge of allowing illegal evidence into her son's trial, held a sign that read: "The presumption of innocence is null and void in Division N."

Such a demonstration can no longer be summarily dismissed as the act of a desperate mother -- not in light of the federal allegations against Bodenheimer. The Lewis case should be reviewed. Ditto for all cases in which even informal allegations of misconduct were made against Bodenheimer -- either during his career as a judge or as a prosecutor. After all, the FBI probe of the judge's marina began in 1999 -- the same year he began serving on the bench.

The Louisiana Judiciary Commission's administrative case against Judge Hunter likewise gives cause for concern. In 1998, the Supreme Court declined the panel's recommendations to censure Judge Hunter for allowing two eastern New Orleans properties she owned to become blighted. Now, the justices must consider commission allegations that Hunter, who was elected to the bench in 1996, allowed her courtroom to become a disaster area.

In the case of Bodenheimer, the concern is that innocent parties might have been framed. With Hunter, it's the reverse: the commission alleges that her court's mishandling of trial transcripts led to appellate court reversals in at least 10 cases, including four homicides.

The state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal twice cited Hunter for contempt in earlier cases because she did not answer its demands for transcripts. Retired Criminal Court Judge Jerome Winsberg, appointed by the High Court to supervise the administrative operations of Hunter's court, has testified, "As an administrator, the section is a disaster." Hunter avers that New Orleans voters, not the Supreme Court, should decide whether to remove her from office. She says she intends to run for re-election.

We accord the utmost respect to the constitutional presumption of innocence to both judges. However, both jurists also have an ethical and legal duty to protect the judiciary from even the appearance of impropriety. Whatever the result of the interim suspensions, both judges should voluntarily step down from their duties until the final verdict is rendered -- as should any judge who is under a cloak of suspicion. In the interest of preserving respect for the courts and the rule of law, the highest possible standards must be applied to those who sit in judgment of others.

On a related note, we agree with the Metropolitan Crime Commission and local civil rights lawyers who say the High Court should peel back the confidentiality restrictions that shroud judicial disciplinary proceedings. Last year, for example, the Judiciary Commission filed 28 charges against eight judges statewide. But under the rules of the Supreme Court and the commission, only the two cases that the panel recommended to the justices for action became public record. The charges against the other six judges remain secret.

While there are valid arguments for keeping the process confidential, we should err on the side of public scrutiny of our judiciary. At a minimum, disclosure of commission charges against a judge might encourage other citizens with valid complaints to come forward.

Moreover, no other state or local officials operate with more confidentiality than judges. In most cases, this is necessary. But, when it comes to official misconduct, more public scrutiny would serve to protect our judiciary -- and justice itself.

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