Impeachment — No, not that one!

After all the chatter about impeaching Bush, or Cheney or Bush and Cheney, it turns out the House Judiciary Committee is gearing up an impeachment investigation . . . of U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous of the Eastern District of Louisiana.
Now, this is a matter of high personal interest. I defended the last federal judge impeached and convicted in the Senate, Walter L. Nixon, Jr., of Mississippi, and have a book coming out next May on the 1868 impeachment of President Andrew Johnson (Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the FIght For Lincoln’s Legacy). The Porteous proceeding, however, has been way under the radar screen until now. Let me share what I’ve learned about it so far.
Judge G. Thomas Porteus (E.D. LA)
Porteous, a longtime state court judge, was appointed to the federal bench by President Clinton in 1994. Now 62, the judge’s troubles appear to involve living beyond his means for much of his time on the bench. A series of small-gauge financial pecadillos are detailed in a report last year by a special investigatory committee of the Judicial Conference of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. These include:
— While a state court judge, soliciting and accepting cash (at least $10,000) from lawyer-friends, some of whom were rewarded with court assignments that would generate income for them.
— Running up credit card debt greater than his annual salary as a federal judge.
— Filing a bankruptcy petition in 2001 under a false name, with a false address, to avoid “embarrassment.”
— After filing the bankruptcy petition, failing to disclose an expected tax refund, gambling on credit and using a credit card, all of which were proscribed by his entry into the bankruptcy process.
— Failing to disclose his bankruptcy petition when he applied for extension of a $5,000 note from a local bank.
— Alchohol abuse and “excessive gambling” at Mississippi casinos.
Though there is not a lot to admire in this list, it’s important to note that a federal grand jury investigation of the judge was concluded without bringing any charges against him.
Moreover, the investigative report cannot be taken as gospel. Judge Porteous evidently is not the easiest client in the world, having gone through two sets of counsel during the Judicial Conference investigation and ending up representing himself at the evidentiary hearing. He also claimed some memory lapses due to “mental depression.” A psychiatric evaluation ordered by the Judicial Conference found him competent to act as a judge and to defend himself. All of these factors lead me to suspect that Judge Porteous’ side of the story has not been well-told yet.
The House investigation surely will extend into the new year. According to the Judicial Conference report, the judge had agreed to resign from the bench at one point, but then backed out.
The case does not directly present any huge constitutional collision between the branches of government. Judicial impeachments rarely do. Rather, they tend to involve allegations of misconduct that revive our long-running, never-resolved question whether impeachment can be used to remove a judge who is “unfit,” or only one who has committed a crime. What, after all, is the meaning of “high crimes and misdemeanors” in the impeachment clauses of the Constitution?
Stay tuned.

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