Senate Holds Rare Impeachment Hearings of Louisiana Federal Judge

An unusual trial for a Louisiana justice who claims to have done nothing illegal.

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In one of the Senate's grand hearing rooms last week, 12 senators sitting on a special committee of impeachment convened to deliberate removing a federal judge from the bench, the first such proceeding in more than 20 years. Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte and California Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff are serving as the prosecutors.

The facts of the case against Louisiana Judge Thomas Porteous, 63, aren't much in debate. Porteous, who is currently suspended with pay, admitted that when he was a state court judge, he received gifts, bottles of liquor, dinners, cash payments, car and home repairs, and other goodies from a bail-bond company and law firm. Executives from that company have testified that the swag was given to the judge in order to win favorable bond rulings, amounting to a kickback scheme. Porteous is also accused of lying to federal investigators who were vetting him for a federal judgeship, a post to which he was confirmed by the Senate in 1994. The FBI spent five years investigating the judge and others involved in various schemes in a case that G-men called Operation Wrinkled Robe. Senators also heard from witnesses about the judge's substantial gambling debts and his illegal filing of false personal bankruptcy information.

Porteous's defense counsel is Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, who has participated in numerous high-profile constitutional law cases. He told senators last week that the charges against his client are vague, unsubstantiated, and relate to events that occurred before he was seated as a federal judge. To remove a judge based on such evidence, Turley argued, would set a "dangerously low and ill-defined standard" for future impeachments. The defense is wrapping up their case this week.

The House voted unanimously in March to impeach Porteous, passing along four articles to the Senate. After the panel wraps up its proceedings next week, the full Senate is expected to vote on his removal during a lame duck session after the November midterm elections. A two-thirds majority is needed to remove the judge from office. There have been 12 judicial impeachments, the first in 1803, seven of which resulted in conviction and removal from office.

Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who presided over the panel's work along with Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, said that the exercise was to establish an official record of the case to inform senators as they vote on the articles of impeachment. As a result, the proceedings, while similar to a trial, follow a more ad hoc formula, for instance, permitting hearsay evidence and limiting the defense and prosecution's ability to raise objections. "This is not a typical jury," McCaskill said.

One of the prosecution witnesses, Indiana University Law School Prof. Charles Geyh, a judicial ethics expert, testified that receiving gifts while on the bench, whatever the reason, unavoidably creates the unacceptable appearance of impropriety. Turley, meanwhile, argued that receiving such gifts was par for the course for New Orleans judges and wasn't illegal.

Louisiana has a long and checkered history of public corruption scandals, a fact that Geyh said should make no difference to senators weighing the charges against Porteous. That " 'everybody is doing it' or 'lots of people are doing it' can be a slippery slope to hell," Geyh testified. The judge plans to retire next year but would lose his six-figure pension if removed.