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The Misguided Prosecution of Judge Joan S. Benge

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In 2001, Judge Joan Benge, then a novice judge at Jefferson Parish's 24th Judicial District Court in Louisiana, ruled in favor of a plaintiff who had filed a lawsuit over a 1998 minor car wreck that was caused by another motorist. The plaintiff claimed that the accident resulted in a cracked tooth, and he sued the other driver and State Farm Insurance Co. for $23,323 in damages. Eventually, Judge Benge awarded the plaintiff $2,000 for general damages, $1,383 in special damages, plus interest and court costs for a total of $4,275. The plaintiff complained that the award was too low and appealed the ruling but later withdrew the appeal in 2002.

Because the inexperienced judge had questions about the case, she sought the advice of a courthouse colleague with whom she openly discussed her concerns and possible outcomes. The judge she sought for mentoring was Judge Ronald Bodenheimer who, unknown to anyone at the courthouse at the time, was being investigated by the FBI for suspected past criminal activity and whose conversations were secretly being recorded. In addition, the plaintiff in the case was Phil Demma, a Juvenile Court officer, reserve deputy sheriff, and a local political operative who, also unknown to Benge, had been working with Bodenheimer in back channels and was under FBI surveillance. Although Bodenheimer made several attempts to present Demma in a favorable light to Benge, his efforts apparently were not reflected in the final outcome of the case.

An additional factor was the fact that Demma's attorney and cousin, John Venezia, had contributed to Benge's election campaign. Attorneys are known to be the major source of contributions to judicial campaigns, and they also often appear before judges who have benefited from their support. This subject has been widely debated because contributions sometimes influence judicial decisions. Judges have the option of disqualifying themselves but commonly decide to hear such cases. Judge Benge did not recuse herself from the Demma case and proceeded to a ruling. Subsequently, Bodenheimer and Demma pleaded guilty to a variety of unrelated crimes and were fined and sentenced to terms of prison and probation.

The Judiciary Commission is Louisiana Supreme Court's advisory body that reviews allegations of judicial misconduct, and in 2003 it opened a file on Judge Benge after a series of articles about the corruption trial of Bodenheimer and Demma appeared in the Times-Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper. In them, a vindictive Demma is described as "conspiring to influence Benge to get a favorable ruling" by telling Bodenheimer to let Benge know that he, Demma, would support her in the future if she would rule favorably in his case and award damages larger than the case merited.

To Benge's credit, the conspiracy that was hatched between Demma and Bodenheimer failed to take root, and she has always maintained that her 2001 judgment in Demma's lawsuit was ultimately based on a consideration of the law and the facts of the case. The dubious charges against her hinge on the fact that she was the recipient of advice from a colleague who, unknown to her at the time, was improperly attempting to influence her judgment in the case under consideration. Clearly, her verdict in the Demma case did not reflect Bodenheimer's attempt to obtain a windfall for his accomplice. In 2002 and 2008, Judge Benge ran unopposed for reelection and was returned to her seat on the bench for additional six-year terms.

Judge Felicia Toney Williams, a Judiciary Commission hearing officer, heard Judge Benge's testimony and concluded that her explanation was "not credible," adding: "What is clear is that the award was not based on Judge Benge's assessment of the evidence in the case." The Chairman of the Judiciary Commission, Judge Edwin Lombard, wrote in an 80-page complaint filed with the state Supreme Court: "Judge Benge failed to maintain and personally observe high standards of conduct and by so doing undermined the integrity and the independence of the judiciary." Judges Williams and Lombard are both black and, as indicated below, race may have factored into the case against Judge Benge, who is white.

Michael Bewers, the special council who prosecuted Judge Benge, had recommended that she be suspended for six months without pay. Nevertheless, in July 2009, the Judiciary Commission recommended that Judge Benge be removed from the bench. The Times-Picayune, in a series of strongly worded editorials, has also called for her ouster.

Notwithstanding the Times-Picayune's editorials, one of that newspaper's venerable columnists has suggested that cries for Judge Benge's removal might be racially motivated. Writer James Gill pointed out that "four metro-area judges forced out recently have all been black," and he added: "Her case comes up just when the [state] Supreme Court might feel the time has come to counter the perception of racial imbalance in matters of judicial discipline."

If justice is supposed to be blind, should it not also be colorblind? Perhaps Judge Benge deserves to be reproached for getting mixed up with bad company and exercising poor judgment, but that offense does not rise to a level that justifies removal, regardless of race. The high court is expected to make its final decision in November.

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Carl Bernofsky, Ph.D., is a former professor of biochemistry at Tulane University and Mayo Graduate School of Medicine. He is the author or co-author of numerous scientific publications and was the recipient of major awards from national (more...)

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