Last week, the Louisiana Supreme Court made an uncommon decision -- to mete out a stricter punishment than the state Judiciary Commission had recommended for a judge who broke the law and violated his ethical obligations. Orleans Parish Civil Court District Judge C. Hunter King would have been lucky to get away with the recommended penalty, a yearlong suspension without pay. But all seven justices agreed an unpaid suspension wasn't enough for King, who forced his staff to raise campaign funds for him on court time and then lied about it -- more than once -- under oath. They instead removed him from the bench, declaring that "the most severe discipline is warranted in this case." King also has to repay $700 to the Judiciary Commission for the cost of its investigation into the allegations against him -- an investigation that King tried his best to impede over a 14-month period.
The commission based its case against King on testimony and evidence provided by a former employee, Barbara Wallace, a court reporter who said King forced his workers to sell 20 tickets each to a campaign fundraiser or come up with the money themselves. Wallace told the commission that King instructed his staff to hawk the $250 tickets to attorneys and law firms, and to put their fundraising duties before their court-related work. Wallace says she was fired because she couldn't make her 20-ticket quota.
Such misconduct sounds bad enough secondhand, but Wallace provided investigators with audiotapes of staff meetings with King that she had secretly recorded. When King appeared before the Judiciary Commission to answer her charges, he flatly denied it all, again and again, and attempted to smear Wallace -- calling her charges "an unprincipled, retaliatory attack ... by a disgruntled former employee." Only when confronted with the tapes did King confess.
Transcripts of the tapes show a crass, reprehensible disgrace to the judiciary -- including King's orders to staffers to suspend courtroom duties for an entire week so they could peddle tickets. "Nothing is going to get done today other than campaigning," he told Wallace, adding that her courtroom work was "going to have to wait, 'cause we're doing this."
He also tacitly threatened to fire employees who weren't "enthusiastic" about raising campaign money, and he encouraged his workers to look for opportunities to sell tickets. He tried to sell some himself at a funeral. "We did it tactful, and I don't think it was unappropriate (sic)," he told his staff.
King's arrogance -- displayed before he learned of the tapes -- quickly vanished when he realized the game was up. A tearful King appeared before the state Supreme Court in September to admit his wrongdoing and to ask the justices to give him the one-year suspension recommended by the commission -- and a second chance on the bench. Thankfully, he got neither. Even a hint of professional or personal impropriety does a disservice to the bench, and King's behavior went way beyond the appearance of an impropriety. In five years, King may ask the high court for permission to seek another judgeship. If that day ever comes, he should be denied that privilege.
King may indeed find himself in another courtroom in the near future -- but not on the bench. District Attorney Eddie Jordan has said he would look into possible criminal charges. We encourage him to do so. As a judge, King well understood the ramifications of perjury.
King's case raises other issues. To some, it bolsters the notion that judges should be appointed, not elected. At its worst, a system of electing judges automatically places their ethical duties at odds with the political realities of raising campaign funds. Supporters of an elected judiciary argue that our system can weed out unethical judges -- as has happened in King's case. At a minimum, our state must take steps to insulate judges from political pressures, regardless of how they are selected.
The Judiciary Commission, which investigates complaints of judicial misconduct, has been busy the last few years. Several local judges have made headlines for allegedly violating judicial canons as well as state and federal laws. This is the second time in just over a year that the state's high court has removed an Orleans Parish judge from the bench. In August 2002, the justices stripped Criminal Court Judge Sharon Hunter of her duties for outrageously poor courtroom management.
We applaud the Supreme Court for moving decisively to eject judges who grossly abuse their positions or fail to fulfill their professional obligations. Judges who cannot abide by the laws they enforce have no business being on the bench. We likewise commend the Judiciary Commission's investigative process, and we trust that King's fate will help bolster public confidence in the integrity of our state's judiciary at all levels. "Honesty is a 'minimum qualification' required of every judge," the Supreme Court stated in its decision to remove King. That's a telling reminder of the reason why judges are addressed as "Your Honor."