Fifth Circuit Takes New Orleans Judge Thomas Porteous to Task

For the foreseeable future, New Orleans federal judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr. will have a much lighter load. The Judicial Council of the Fifth Circuit issued a reprimand on Wednesday suspending the judge for two years for alleged infractions, including failing to report gifts from lawyers who appeared before him and concealing debts while in personal bankruptcy. The judge may next have to face impeachment proceedings in Congress.

Lewis Unglesby, counsel to Porteous, a 62-year-old Clinton appointee, says the suspension is unwarranted. “I don’t think you’ll find a single person who says judge Porteous wasn’t fair in any single case he tried,” he says.

Suspension of any length is rare for a federal judge. “This is probably the most severe punishment ever imposed by the federal bench against a fellow judge,” says professor Arthur Hellman, of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

The Porteous reprimand comes at a time when the federal bench has been taking its lumps, including the recent indictment of Houston Judge Samuel Kent for allegedly sexually abusing a court employee. (He has denied the charges.) Along with its reprimand, the Fifth Circuit unsealed investigative reports that detailed a host of alleged transgressions by Porteous. For instance, after incurring gambling debts, in 2001 the judge filed for bankruptcy, but did so under a fictitious name, so as to save himself embarrassment, according to a 2007 report by a Fifth Circuit investigative committee. The judge was warned not to incur more debt while in bankruptcy, the report stated, but he still ran up thousands of dollars in undisclosed gambling debt at casinos in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In a June report, the Judicial Conference concluded that Porteous had also solicited and received gifts from lawyers, including, “cash payments, numerous lunches, payments for travel, meals, and hotel rooms in Las Vegas.” The judge failed to disclose the gifts, according to the report, and he used methods of payment that left no paper trail, including once dispatching his secretary to pick up an envelope of cash.