- Associated Press - Saturday, October 15, 2016

PLAQUEMINE, La. (AP) - A state district judge temporarily removed from the bench on misconduct counts has bounced back from a year-long suspension with a new job in Iberville Parish government.

The Advocate reports (https://bit.ly/2e40SCS) J. Robin Free, who until June presided over cases for the 18th Judicial District, is now being paid $75,000 a year as the supervisor of Iberville Parish’s Department of General Services.

Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso, a lifelong friend of Free’s, said Thursday the judge is being paid to update the parish’s personnel manual and to assist Ourso’s chief financial officer with the parish’s 2017 fiscal year budget.

Ourso said Free was hired shortly after his suspension.

“I don’t want the public to think I did something political,” Ourso said. “Robin came over and asked if I could help him. I figured I could save the parish money by hiring this man who has more than 20 years of experience with labor law to work on our personnel manual.”

In a written statement Friday, Free said: “I’m thankful for the opportunity that Mr. Ourso has given me to apply my skills and expertise to make Iberville Parish a better place for its citizens to live.”

He continued, “My attention is now focused on being a better person and a better judge in order to better serve the citizens of the 18th Judicial District.”

A job description for his new position, provided by Ourso, lists some of Free’s duties as: “preparation and preservation of ordinances for all matters relating to the Iberville Parish Government,” reviewing condemnation ordinances, and training inspectors on procedures.

The job description includes drafting the parish’s professional services contracts, modifying the parish’s personnel manual, assisting the finance department, and drafting forms for parish servitudes, rights of way and utility service agreements.

Ourso claims he would not have hired Free if he didn’t have a need for his services within his administration. The parish president said hiring the judge will probably save the parish nearly $200,000, the amount it would take to hire an outside attorney to update the personnel manual - which hasn’t been done since 1997.

Ourso said Free has already presented him with a draft of the new manual, which will need to be reviewed and presented to the Parish Council for approval.

“He has to follow all the rules like all my employees. He doesn’t have vacation days or sick leave,” Ourso said. “I told him: Over here, I’m the judge now. He’s in my court and these are my rules.”

The Louisiana Supreme Court in June doled out a yearlong suspension without pay to Free for failing to maintain the integrity of his position and exhibiting behavior described by the majority of the Supreme Court’s seven justices as “injudicious, lacking judicial temperament and giving an appearance of impropriety.”

Free, who served on the bench since 1996 on cases in West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes, was suspended for making comments in front of a victim’s family showing bias toward prosecutors, abusing his contempt authority in two separate cases, making inappropriate comments toward women during domestic abuse proceedings, and using slang when speaking to defendants in several criminal cases.

The suspension is Free’s second within a two-year period. In December 2014, Free was suspended without pay for 30 days for accepting an all-expense-paid trip from a Texas attorney whose client was awarded $1.2 million in a personal injury lawsuit tried in the judge’s court.

Free’s employment with the parish will force him to recuse himself from any cases involving the parish government when he returns to the bench.

“I’m not the kind of person to beat a man when he’s down,” Ourso said. “He made a mistake. He’s taking his punishment like a man. I’m happy we could help him out.”


Information from: The Advocate, https://theadvocate.com

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