District Judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr. was photographed on Capitol Hill during a House task force meeting considering his impeachment. With him on Nov. 18 was Candice Lemons, left, a paralegal with the Ober / Kaler law firm.
WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives Thursday unanimously approved the four articles of impeachment against New Orleans Federal Judge Thomas Porteous.
The first article, approved by a vote of 412-0, found the judge had engaged in misconduct by not disclosing his relationship with a lawyer in a federal case involving a Jefferson Parish hospital.
The three subsequent articles were approved by votes of 410-0, 416-0 and 423-0.
He is the 15th judge found to have committed "high crimes and misdemeanors," the Constitution's criteria for impeachment and the second such vote in the last 20 years.
"Our investigation found that Judge Porteous participated in a pattern of corrupt conduct for years," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chair of a House Task force that reviewed the accusations against Porteous.
"Litigants have the right to expect a judge hearing their case will be fair and impartial, and avoid even the appearance of impropriety," Schiff continued. "Regrettably, no one can have that expectation in Judge Porteous' courtroom. We hope the Senate will schedule the trial expeditiously, so that we may prove our case and remove him from office."
Summary of all four articles of impeachment
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., said he has been part of many House investigations into improper conduct by federal officials but has never seen the "overwhelming and blatant corruption we have before us today."
"Judge Porteous is one of a kind and it is time for him to receive his comeuppance," Sensenbrenner said.
Thursday's session began with an unusual procedure, a "call to the House," which requires members to assert their presence in a roll-call vote to certify their attendance so that they can hear a reading of the four articles of impeachment recommended by the House Judiciary Committee in a January 27 session.
The matter will now go to the Senate, which will likely appoint a committee to conduct a trial. The full Senate would then vote on whether to move him from office, an act that requires a two-thirds vote. Only eight judges in U.S. history have been removed by Senate vote.
The four proposed articles of impeachment accused Porteous of taking money, expensive meals and other gifts from lawyers and a bail bond company with business before him and making false statements in a personal bankruptcy filing.
Though much of the "improper conduct" occurred when he was a state judge, the Judiciary Committee decided he had an obligation to disclose his actions during his nomination and confirmation process in 1994. He was appointed to the U.S. District Court in New Orleans by President Bill Clinton.
In concluding that Porteous committed "high crimes and misdemeanors," the Judiciary Committee accused the judge of engaging "in a pattern of conduct that is incompatible with the trust and confidence placed in him as a federal judge."
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said impeachment is needed "so that the Eastern District of Louisiana can once again provide the citizens a justice system free from corruption."
House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said "it's a sad day" when the House finds a public official has "betrayed his office." Conyers spoke one day after his wife, Monica, a former Detroit City Council member, was sentenced to 37 months in prison for her guilty plea to a single bribery charge.
Porteous' lawyers have maintained that he made some personal mistakes - all a result of problems with gambling and drinking. But they insist he handled all cases before him professionally and without bias, despite any friendships and his acceptance of free meals and other gifts from some lawyers who appeared before him.
Porteous attended some of the five days of hearings conducted by a House Judiciary Committee task force that reviewed the evidence against him. He did not speak, but his lawyer, Richard Westling, was allowed to ask questions of witnesses, including two lawyers and two executives from a bail bond company who all admitted providing gifts to the judge over many years.
One witness, Jefferson Parish attorney Robert Creely, said that his firm received special court appointments from Porteous, when he was a state judge in Jefferson Parish, and was asked to return some of the proceeds back to the judge.
Only 14 judges previously have been impeached by the House. The last was Samuel Kent of Texas in June, 2009. He was accused of sexual assault, making false and misleading statements and obstructing and impeding an official proceeding.
Kent resigned before the Senate scheduled a trial.
Porteous, 63, continues to receive his $174,000 federal judicial salary, but has been barred from hearing cases until September 2010. If the Senate doesn't vote to remove him from office or he doesn't resign, Porteous would be able to resume hearing cases in September.
In May 2007, the Department of Justice submitted a complaint of judicial misconduct to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. The Department said that it decided not to prosecute Porteous - partially because charges on some accusations against the judge occurred far back enough to run afoul of statute of limitations rules.
But the Justice Department said that its investigation "indicates that Judge Porteous may have violated federal and state criminal laws, controlling canons of judicial conduct, rules of professional responsibility and conducted himself in a manner antithetical to the constitutional standard of good behavior required of all federal judges."
The Justice Department complaint concluded that "the instances of Judge Porteous' dishonesty in his own sworn statements and court filings, his decade-long course of conduct in soliciting and accepting a stream of payments and gifts from litigants and lawyers with matters before him, and his repeated failures to disclose those dealings to interested parties and the court all render him unfit."
In 2008, the Judicial Conference of the United States voted unanimously to refer the matter to the House for possible impeachment action, citing substantial evidence that Judge Porteous repeatedly committed perjury, willfully and systematically concealing information. It also moved to take the maximum punitive action against the judge, suspending him from hearing cases for two years "or until Congress takes final action on impeachment proceedings," though it could not and did not seek to take away his judge's salary.