SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – While some states are ill-equipped to deal with judges who are found to commit infractions, in November, the Louisiana Supreme Court Justices found a way to hold judges removed from the bench even more accountable.
After a years’ long investigation into the matter, the high court in November amended Article 5 of the Louisiana State Constitution that deals with the Judicial Branch of government.
Throughout history, when a complaint alleging disabilities, impairments or possible criminal conduct of a Louisiana municipal, district or appellate judge is submitted to the Judiciary Commission of Louisiana, it has always been fully investigated. When found viable, the judge in question has been removed.
But on Nov. 19, the Louisiana Justices handed down an order that amended Article V by actually requiring judges disqualified or removed from the bench for cause to pay costs of the investigations of the complaints against them.
In cases where a judge is on interim disqualification after being indicted or charged with a serious crime, the new order allows them to be taxed for costs of paying a pro tempore judge appointed to cover the removed judge’s docket if he or she are actually convicted.
The Nov. 19 order also speeds up investigations, requiring the Judiciary Commission to investigate and either resolve the matter or file a recommendation within a year or receiving the complaint or report of judicial misconduct, and allows the Commission or hearing officer to shorten deadlines or delays in order to expedite the matter.
The new order was signed less than a month before the High Court officially opened an investigation into a racial slur-filled video involving Lafayette City Judge Michelle Odinet and suspended her.
In an order signed Thursday, Dec. 16, High Court officially placed Odinet on suspension without pay pending the outcome of the investigation.
Although Odinet had requested a leave of absence without pay, the Court Order stated she was “disqualified from exercising judicial functions, without salary, during the pendency of further proceedings…”
A day later, the Louisiana Supreme Court appointed Retired Opelousas City Court Judge Vanessa Harris and retired St. Landry Parish assistant district attorney to fill in for Odinet.
In appointing Harris, the Justices also appointed Lafayette’s first Black city judge. She will serve as District A judge while Odinet is under investigation.
In Louisiana cities of more than 100,000 population, municipal judges earn the same as state district judges, which in 2021 was somewhere in between $155,000 and $160,000, after adding the 2.5% raise the 2019 state Legislature tacked on to the $153,143 they earned in 2019.
Lafayette’s population in 2021 is 125,813, based on US Census projections.