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Judge should resign, but for correct reason

If Republican 23rd Judicial District Judge Jessie Leblanc goes, it shouldn’t happen for the virtue-signaling reason stated by Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Controversy has swirled about Leblanc since she assumed office in 2013, first winning a special election and then gaining a full term in 2014. The daughter of longtime former Ascension Parish Assessor Gerald McCrory, she clashed on several occasions with District Attorney Ricky Babin over a number of issues, perhaps the most visible being a public corruption case involving St. James Parish officials from which she eventually recused herself after Babin accused her of bias.

But things became really interesting when late last year she recused herself from signing a warrant related to a very minor case. Like pulling a loose string, since then it has unraveled in titillating and disappointing ways that could prove costly to taxpayers.

Eventually it became admitted to the public that Leblanc, married many years, for several years had carried on an affair with Bruce Prejean, formerly the chief assistant deputy for Assumption Parish and who had served as interim sheriff briefly in 2015. As the affair, which Prejean admitted to last month, wound down LeBlanc sent text messages to him using racist language.

After denials first of the affair and then of the messages, Leblanc admitted to both last week. This came after calls from various quarters for her resignation and investigation by the state’s Judiciary Commission for the messages. Babin says his office has identified 2,100 cases over which Leblanc presided that risk challenge by defendants over nondisclosure of potentially exculpatory or impeaching evidence regarding whether they received a fair trial.

Today, days after the text message revelations and her admission and weeks after Prejean’s admission, Edwards surfaced to make a statement, with his response perhaps delayed by immersion into Carnival. He said her admitted racial slurs “compromised her ability to preside as a judge, and she has damaged the judiciary. She should resign.”

That, as other calls for her to resign over the remarks, misses the point. Resorting to demeaning remarks about people with certain characteristics may be tasteless, but it doesn’t have to translate into behavior, nor define that person. To use this as an example, there are racists out there who in their jobs must interact with the objects of their disparagement every day, but they don’t treat them differently (if grudgingly) because any degree of that gets them fired or sued. And if we took the content of private text messages as the sole criterion to evaluate a judge’s fitness to fairly oversee justice, undoubtedly not an insignificant number of male jurists with impeccable credentials would be chased out of office for their comments about females.

Behavior on the bench is what counts when we consider how a judge's feelings about different kinds of people relates to fitness to serve. As long as she doesn’t let any personal biases, if any exist, about other people interfere with her rulings – and if these did, that would become clear in trial records when reviewed in the aggregate – that’s no reason for her not to serve on the bench.

But then there’s the matter of the affair. Unlike views about groups of people, this strikes at the heart of adjudicating. A judge can set aside prejudices about different groups to rule fairly, and until proven otherwise by the record that presumption should exist. However, society expects judges to be honest and not to involve themselves personally in ways that create bias for or against disputants in the justice system merely on the basis of the attitude of another individual in the system – and, in this instance, not just any law enforcement officer, but the second-ranking such official in a parish. In this instance, behavior is behavior.

Leblanc was mendacious for years by her marital cheating and hiding of that. And it seems impossible that her actions on the bench would not be impacted by Prejean’s opinions about who faces arrest, when a search warrant needs issuing, his testimony if any on the stand, etc. In a sense, this is another form of betrayal: she didn’t recuse herself when she should have to prevent these numerous conflicts of interests from having any chance to impact justice.

While we cannot automatically assume that a judge who in private slurs government employees she knows on the basis of their race necessarily imports that attitude into her judicial decision-making, we do know that a judge who is dishonest in personal dealings cannot credibly wield the public trust to make judicial decisions. On principle, any judge who in their personal lives can’t live above board should resign.

Edwards and others have it wrong. It’s not a boorish series of private messages sent out months ago that may or may not link to biased behavior that should disqualify Leblanc from serving as a judge; she should have been disqualified years ago for violating the public trust by a deception that only could bias her decision-making.

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