The U.S. House of Representatives voted today to adopt four articles of impeachment against U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr., wrapping up a wide-ranging investigation into allegations that Porteous took cash and gifts from lawyers and lied in his own bankruptcy case.
With four unanimous votes, the stage is set for a trial in the Senate unless Porteous resigns from his seat in the Eastern District of Louisiana. He has so far declined to do so, despite high-profile investigations by the House, the 5th Circuit Judicial Council, and the Department of Justice.
Though an impeachment of a federal judge is extremely rare, this is the second in as many years. U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent of the Southern District of Texas resigned last year shortly after the House impeached him for obstructing an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment. Kent had pleaded guilty to the charge in federal court but resigned only after the Senate began preparing for a trial.
In an hour of speeches this morning, House members poured out criticism of Porteous. They accused him of decades of corruption, including acceptance of gambling trips and cash from a bailbondsman and lawyers. They also said Porteous concealed assets in his personal bankruptcy filing in 2001. Porteous was a state judge before President Bill Clinton appointed him to the federal bench in 1994.
“The misconduct, I’m sorry to say, easily satisfies the constitutional standard of being high crimes and misdemeanors and clearly renders the judge unfit to continue service,” said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the committee’s top Republican, said other federal judges should take heart from the two recent impeachments. “We will not let a few bad actors mar the reputation of others on the federal bench,” Smith said.
Porteous is represented by Richard Westling of the Washington office of Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver. Westling has said the House should not consider Porteous’ conduct as a state judge, and he has noted that the Justice Department declined to bring a case against Porteous in 2007, citing multiple complications with a potential trial.
Seyfarth Shaw partner Alan Baron, working on contract, led the House’s investigations into Kent and Porteous. Before these two judges, the last time the House had impeached a judge was in the 1980s. Baron handled that investigation too.
Porteous has been suspended from hearing cases, though the suspension is scheduled to expire in September. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said he hopes Porteous resigns before then. “I would still encourage him to do that. But short of that, Senate action in a short timeframe is necessary,” Scalise said.
UPDATE (3:05 p.m.): Porteous is not backing down. "We expected today’s vote and have known since the first congressional hearing that we would be facing a Senate trial," his lawyer, Westling, said in a statement just now.
The statement continues: "We are surprised by the claims of some representatives that the Justice Department did not bring criminal charges because of the statute of limitations. Not a single action taken by Judge Porteous while on the federal bench was beyond the statute of limitations. The decision not to prosecute was based purely on a lack of sufficient credible evidence. Unfortunately, the House has decided to disregard the Justice Department’s decision and to more forward with impeachment. As a result, we will now turn to the Senate to seek a full and fair hearing of all of the evidence."