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