De­bat­ing a fed­eral judge’s fate

A Se­nate com­mit­tee con­cludes five days of hear­ings in the ju­rist’s im­peach­ment.

Los Angeles Times - - Crisis Bell - David G. Sav­age re­port­ing from washington david.sav­age@latimes.com

Only seven fed­eral judges in Amer­i­can his­tory have been im­peached and re­moved from of­fice — for of­fenses that in­clude be­ing in­tox­i­cated on the bench and wag­ing war against the United States dur­ing the Civil War.

On Tues­day, a spe­cial Se­nate im­peach­ment com­mit­tee fin­ished five days of tes­ti­mony to de­cide whether to add to the list a judge from New Or­leans who ran up gam­bling debts, filed for bank­ruptcy un­der a false name and ac­cepted gifts from lawyers and friends.

He has not been crim­i­nally charged. But if the full Se­nate votes to re­move him from of­fice, U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Por­te­ous Jr.— called “G.T. Or­tous” in his bank­ruptcy fil­ing — will lose his $174,000 yearly salary and pen­sion.

Though he of­fered to re­tire next year if he could keep his pen­sion, Por­te­ous has re­fused to re­sign, even af­ter be­ing stripped of his le­gal du­ties by the U.S. 5th Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals. In March, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives unan­i­mously ap­proved four ar­ti­cles of im­peach­ment, ac­cus­ing the judge of re­peat­edly mak­ing false state­ments to hide his mis­con­duct.

But the stan­dards for re­mov­ing a life-tenured judge are not that clear. In the late 1980s, three judges were im­peached and re­moved, but all had faced se­ri­ous crim­i­nal charges.

The de­fense team for Por­te­ous, led by Ge­orge Washington Uni­ver­sity law pro­fes­sor Jonathan Tur­ley, ar­gued that the judge was guilty of, at most, low crimes and mis­de­meanors. Por­te­ous may have taken gifts from lawyers and friends, Tur­ley said, but he is not guilty of se­ri­ous of­fenses such as bribery.

His de­fense on the bank­ruptcy charge is that his for­mer lawyer sug­gested the phony name as a way to avoid bad pub­lic­ity.

“This is about an ap­pear­ance of im­pro­pri­ety, and we think it is a mis­take to re­move judges based on that stan­dard,” Tur­ley said Tues­day dur­ing a break in the tes­ti­mony.

“It would make a mock­ery of the court sys­tem to leave him on the bench,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Bur­bank), one of the House pros­e­cu­tors. He said the judge had spent years “gam­ing the sys­tem” by tak­ing kick­backs and pay­offs, in­clud­ing gam­bling trips to Las Ve­gas and free car re­pairs.

Wit­nesses told of bail bonds­men leav­ing a bucket of shrimp and a bot­tle of vodka as gifts for the judge. An­other wit­ness told of the judge re­ceiv­ing an en­ve­lope with $2,000 cash for his son’s wed­ding from a lawyer who ap­peared be­fore him.

The 12 sen­a­tors hear­ing the tes­ti­mony are charged only with mak­ing a re­port to the full Se­nate.

“We’re to be eyes and ears of the Se­nate. We will present the facts in an im­par­tial re­port,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the panel’s chair­woman. She said the full Se­nate was likely to de­cide on Por­te­ous’ fate af­ter the Novem­ber elec­tion.

Only a hand­ful of spec­ta­tors and staff watched Tues­day as the lawyers ques­tioned sev­eral ex­perts on bank­ruptcy. Sev­eral sen­a­tors sat read­ing and barely looked up as the lawyers and wit­nesses went back and forth on how bank­ruptcy pro­ceed­ings nor­mally op­er­ate.

Por­te­ous con­tin­ued gam­bling af­ter he filed for bank­ruptcy, and he hid some as­sets from cred­i­tors, the House pros­e­cu­tors said.

Wit­nesses for the de­fense tes­ti­fied that bank­ruptcy fil­ings of­ten con­tain er­rors that need to be cor­rected with later fil­ings. It is not un­heard of, they said, for debtors to hide some of their as­sets, or like Por­te­ous, to not re­veal he was due a sub­stan­tial tax re­fund.

But at times, the sen­a­tors in­jected a note of skep­ti­cism. A bank­ruptcy ex­pert tes­ti­fy­ing for the de­fense said he had of­ten seen fil­ings with nu­mer­ous mis­takes. One sen­a­tor asked how many times the mis­take con­sisted of a false name on the bank­ruptcy pe­ti­tion.

“None,” he replied.

Manuel Balce Ceneta

UN­DER FIRE: U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Por­te­ous Jr. ran up gam­bling debts, filed for bank­ruptcy un­der a false name and ac­cepted gifts from lawyers.

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