Impeachment trial begins for Louisiana federal judge
In his long career as a prosecutor and state and federal judge, the Honorable Gabriel Thomas Porteous of New Orleans has tried and presided over hundreds of cases involving malfeasance and misdeeds.
This week, in a chilly Senate hearing room, he is the defendant, accused of decades of corruption, in an impeachment trial that could result in him being kicked off the federal bench.
The trial is an extraordinary spectacle, featuring allegations that lawyers and bail bondsmen plied the judge, a reformed drinker and gambler, with gifts to gain his courtroom favor. Cash in envelopes. Bottles of Absolut and coolers of shrimp. A Vegas bachelor party for Porteous's son, complete with lap dance. It showcases both the often-sordid politics of Louisiana and a struggle over constitutional precedents.
But while this is the first Senate impeachment trial since President Bill Clinton's in 1999, and the first for a member of the judiciary since 1989, the historic procedure is underway largely outside the zone of the public's attention. Amid the tumult of the midterm campaigns, Washington's attention has been occupied elsewhere.
The same room, No. 216 in the Hart Senate Office Building, was packed two months ago for the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan. Now it sits mostly empty of press and spectators.
The place is full, however, with prosecutorial heft, rare bipartisan teamwork and top-drawer defense lawyers who have increasingly been trying the patience of Sen. Claire McGaskill (D-M0.), a former city and county prosecutor who is chairing the 12-member Senate Impeachment Trial Committee. The panel will make recommendations to the full Senate, which is expected to vote on impeachment sometime after the November elections.
A team of six House impeachment managers, headed by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a former U.S. attorney who tried public corruption cases, is prosecuting the four articles of impeachment, which also include charges that Porteous lied on his 2001 bankruptcy petition and to FBI agents who were conducting background checks after he was nominated to the 5th Circuit Court.
Porteous's defense lawyers, led by Georgetown University professor Jonathan Turley, say the charges are overblown and do not rise to the "high crimes" described in the U.S. Constitution. He urged senators to consider carefully before making Porteous the only judge in U.S. history to be forced off the bench through impeachment without having been charged with a crime.
"The secret is out, Judge Porteous gambled, he probably gambled too much," Turley said in his opening statements Monday, "but that's not illegal."
Schiff countered that the House voted unanimously in March that Porteous's conduct was "so violative of the public trust that he cannot be allowed to remain on the bench without making a mockery of the court system."
Porteous, 63, a large, balding man with thick gold rings on each hand, is suspended from the bench but still collecting his salary. He has sat impassively at the defense table, sometimes making a note or two on a legal pad, as a string of colorful characters have spilled the alleged tale of his dishonor and human failings.
His Metairie home was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. Four months later, his wife, Carmella, died of a heart attack, his son testified Wednesday. "After that, he became very isolated, he stayed at home, he was depressed," said Timothy Porteous, also a lawyer.