Using N-word at home is not lawyer ethics violation, hearing committee says
A now-former judge who used the N-word in a video taken at her home did not violate lawyer ethics rules, according to a hearing committee of the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board.
Judge Michelle Odinet resigned from her position as a Lafayette city court judge within days of the incident. She remained a lawyer, however.
The Legal Profession Blog noted the hearing committee report, filed Jan. 23.
The video recorded people using the N-word while commenting off camera as they watched security camera footage of the capture of a man they thought to be breaking into a truck.
Odinet, her children and two of their friends had surprised the suspect when they arrived home in the early-morning hours of Dec. 11, 2021, according to the hearing board report.
“The young men attempted to exit the vehicle, but [Odinet] locked the doors to keep them inside due to concern for the children’s safety,” the report said.
After some back and forth, three male passengers got out and saw the suspect near the family’s truck. The young men captured the suspect, who was held until police arrived.
Odinet watched the security video of the incident the next morning. As she watched, her children and their friends came up from behind and watched, as well. Some male voices commented, as did Odinet, who said, “We have a n- – – – -. It’s a n- – – – -, like a roach.”
The video of the viewing, with the watchers’ comments, were recorded, posted on the internet and widely circulated. Odinet did not take the video or post it.
The hearing committee said Odinet’s slur violated judicial conduct rules that require judges to uphold the integrity of the judiciary and to avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities. But Odinet can’t be subject to discipline as a member of the bar, unless her conduct is also grounds for lawyer discipline, the hearing committee said.
In Louisiana, the hearing board said, there is no ground for lawyer discipline “for profanities and undignified/uncivil language used by a lawyer in their own home.”
The hearing committee noted that the Louisiana Supreme Court did not adopt Model Rule 8.4(g) of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which bars discrimination based on race and other characteristics in conduct related to the practice of law.
That rule states: It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to “engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law. This paragraph does not limit the ability of a lawyer to accept, decline or withdraw from a representation in accordance with Rule 1.16. This paragraph does not preclude legitimate advice or advocacy consistent with these rules.”
The hearing committee also rejected the disciplinary counsel’s contention that the conduct violated an ethics rule barring conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice. Because Odinet resigned and did not preside in any matter after her comments, there was no prejudice to the administration of justice, the committee said.
The committee listed several mitigating factors. Odinet had no prior discipline; she had no dishonest or selfish motive; she made a good faith effort to rectify her conduct; she cooperated in the investigation; she suffered “other penalties” that included resigning from her position, losing income and being subject to widespread condemnation; witnesses said she had a good character and reputation; and she showed remorse.
The hearing committee concluded that Odinet’s “self-imposed discipline, resigning as judge, [was] more onerous than any discipline sought by [the Office of Disciplinary Counsel of the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board] such that any requested discipline is superfluous.”
The ABA Journal reached Odinet by phone, who said she would read the ABA Journal’s email seeking comment. She did not immediately respond to the questions.