Last week, the state Supreme Court approved indefinite unpaid leave for Lafayette City Court Judge Michelle Odinet, while the state Judiciary Commission fields several complaints filed against her.
Odinet has admitted it was her voice that could be heard shouting the n-word on a video that was taken in her home. She and other people, some say her children, are watching surveillance video of an attempted vehicle burglary at her home, and can be heard laughing and at least one other can be heard using the n-word to refer to the man arrested for the alleged crime. To listen to the video yourself, click here to see the original story about it in The Current.
If the Commission ends up opening a file and investigating, if it finds wrongdoing it could take more than two years to work through the process. If the complaint comes to a hearing, the file will become public record.
Odinet's attorney filed the motion for the leave, and it is classified as a "consent" order, which means the attorney or judge involved either requested it or agrees with it. The court also appointed a retired Opelousas judge to fill her seat while she's on leave.
When we spoke to Odinet's attorney about the leave, he told us that "what happens in the long term is something she is going to think about in the weeks to come."
While she's doing that thinking, the state Judiciary Commission will be investigating the complaints against her.
In Louisiana, even an elected judge cannot be removed by a recall petition, as other elected officials can be. In our state, it's the state Supreme Court that disciplines and/or removes judges from their bench. We reached out to the Court to ask for information about how the process works.
Here's what we found out:
The Judiciary Commission of Louisiana serves as an extension of the eyes and ears of the Justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court. They are the independent and preliminary “fact finders.” They conduct inquiries and investigations into alleged violations of the ethical rules for state judicial officers contained in Article 5, Section 25 of the Constitution or the Louisiana Code of Judicial Conduct to determine whether to recommend to the Supreme Court that a judicial officer be publicly disciplined.
Once the Commission concludes its investigation, it can send a report to the Court or there can be oral argument before the justices. The Court alone decides what the discipline will be; the Court isn't bound by the Commission's findings but can adopt them without any argument as well.
The members of the Commission are volunteers and serve on a part-time basis. The members are a court of appeal judge, two district court judges, selected by the Supreme Court; two attorneys who have practiced law for at least 10 years and a third who has practiced for at least three years but less than 10 years, appointed by Appeals Court judges; and three citizens who aren't lawyers, judges or public officials, appointed by the state District Judges' association.
They have a full-time staff that gathers information and records regarding complaints or investigations.
"The Office of Special Counsel conducts inquiries and investigations in order to seek evidence that is material and relevant to the assertions that a judicial officer has deviated from the prescribed standard of conduct. The Special Counsel is seeking evidence that proves and also evidence that disproves the allegations," information from the Commission states.
The investigation can take quite some time, according to a timeline provided by the Commission:
If there's no jurisdiction, or if there are not sufficient facts to show the judge violated the rules, the complaint could be dismissed within two to four months.
"However, if the Commission decides to conduct an investigation, and/or have a formal evidentiary hearing and then recommends discipline to the Supreme Court, resolution of that complaint could take nineteen to thirty-five months, depending upon how complicated the facts are, how many witnesses are involved, and how many continuances the judge and/or witnesses request that are granted," information from the Commission states.
If the Commission finds the judge did violate the rules, they can recommend three types of discipline for the Supreme Court to consider issuing: public censure, suspension with or without pay or removal from office.
In terms of the complaint itself, anyone can file a complaint against a judge in Louisiana; you can do it anonymously or attach your name to it, as long as you provide sufficient information for the Commission to investigate. It doesn't cost anything for you to do that, although you have to make the complaint in writing. That being said, there's no requirement that a complaint be made for the Commission to investigate; they can start their own. One of the things that can trigger an investigation are media reports.
Here's the link to an FAQ about filing a complaint and how they are handled.
There are rules that Louisiana's judges have to follow; many of them are contained in the Code of Judicial Conduct.
"An independent and honorable judiciary is indispensable to justice in our society," the code states. "A judge should participate in establishing, maintaining, and enforcing, and shall personally observe, high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved."
The first rule in that Code states that "A Judge Shall Avoid Impropriety and the Appearance of Impropriety in All Activities."
"A judge shall respect and comply with the law and shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary," the Code states. "As used in this Code, "impartiality" or "impartial" denotes absence of bias or prejudice in favor of, or against, particular parties or classes of parties, as well as maintaining an open mind in considering issues that may come before the judge."
Another rule in the code requires that judges conduct the court's business without prejudice.
"A judge shall perform judicial duties without bias or prejudice. A judge shall not, in the performance of judicial duties, by words or conduct manifest bias or prejudice, and shall not permit staff, court officials or others subject to the judge's direction and control to do so," the Code states.
Louisiana state law allows the court to discipline a judge, up to and including removal from the bench, for "willful misconduct relating to his official duty, willful and persistent failure to perform his duty, persistent and public conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute, conduct while in office which would constitute a felony, or conviction of a felony."