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.
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.
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.
For references and links, see: http://www.tulanelink.com/tulanelink/judgebenge_09a.htm.