A judge in New Orleans is facing removal from the bench because she is alleged to have made a damages award to a plaintiff not based on the merits of the case but because she wanted to help his lawyer, who had contributed to her election campaign. Interestingly, the numbers at issue here — both the damages award and the campaign contribution — are pretty low, especially by Caperton standards. But that’s the point, it doesn’t matter how much the contribution is — a little bit can go a long way.
NOLA.com reports that the Louisiana Supreme Court will hold a hearing on whether to remove Judge Joan Benge from the bench because of a 2001 car accident case in which she awarded $4,275 to a plaintiff . Benge reportedly was leaning towards making no award, but decided to award damages because of her “affinity” for the plaintiff’s lawyer and upon advice from a fellow judge who ultimately himself served time for corruption.
Testimony submitted to the Judiciary Commission, which investigated Benge and recommended her dismissal, reveals the following interactions regarding the damages award:
[W]hile considering how to rule, Benge called [then Judge] Bodenheimer to vent about the trial. She said [the plaintiff] likely would get nothing from the suit but for her affinity for [John] Venezia [the plaintiff's lawyer], who had contributed $925 to her campaign for judge and later gave her another $1,425.
“I’m struggling with it,” she told Bodenheimer, “because if it wasn’t for Venezia, you know, I’d probably zero it. It would probably be my first zero.”
. . . . And at a Christmas party that year, after Benge issued her ruling, Venezia recalled her telling him, “I didn’t like the case. . . . The only reason I gave you anything was because of you.”
Venezia’s contributions amounted to about $2300. That’s it. The Judiciary Commission itself noted:
“She could have made the award because Mr. Venezia had contributed to her campaign, because she hoped to receive his political support in the future, because she hoped to receive, or did not want to lose, the political support of others in the future, because she personally liked Mr. Venezia, or because she felt a loyalty to Judge Bodenheimer.
“It is not clear what her reason for making the award was. What is clear is that the award was not based on Judge Benge’s assessment of the evidence in the case.”
And that’s the point. It’s not clear exactly why Benge ruled as she did, but the fact of the contribution and her own admission to the contributor demonstrate that her decision was not guided by the law and the facts of the case.
This case may be unusual because of the record of virtual admissions by Benge. But even in cases where the answers aren’t so apparent, questions will arise when judges preside over cases involving campaign contributors. As this case demonstrates, it’s not the amount of the donation, it’s the fact of the donation. There’s only one solution: get judges out of the fundraising business.
, Joan Benge
, John Venezia
, Judiciary Commission
, New Orleans