King removed from bench while charges pending

Nearly two months after a state grand jury indicted Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Yolanda King for allegedly lying when she claimed a New Orleans domicile in sworn qualifying papers last year, the Louisiana Supreme Court on Thursday booted King from the bench while she awaits prosecution.

The ruling follows a May 2 recommendation from the Judiciary Commission of Louisiana for “immediate interim disqualification” of King, who won her seat in a runoff election a year ago.

The one-page decision means King still gets paid while state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell pursues two felony charges against her because of a February 2013 “notice of candidacy” in which she listed her domicile as being in the 5300 block of Stillwater Drive in New Orleans East. Caldwell asserts she was actually living in St. Tammany Parish.

An attorney for King, Jim Williams, argued in a legal filing Wednesday that the indictment was the result of “malicious complaints made by her opponents” when she ran for the judgeship and that the commission failed to establish grounds for removing her.

In her opposition, King asserts that during the campaign the FBI investigated threats against her, including threats of “criminal prosecution and a Judiciary Commission investigation if she did not meet the demands being made by the FBI targets.”

“The FBI conducted extensive surveillance and recorded evidence of these threats,” Williams wrote. “Judge King ultimately did not meet the demands of the FBI targets. Not coincidentally, she is now being prosecuted and investigated both criminally and by the Judiciary Commission.”

The people making the threats purportedly investigated by the FBI are not named by Williams, who could not be reached late Thursday. An FBI spokeswoman said the agency “respectfully declines to comment.”

The Supreme Court rejected King’s argument in its one-page ruling Thursday, disqualifying her from “exercising any judicial function during the pendency of further proceedings in this matter.” The ruling was effective immediately.

King was indicted March 20 on two felony counts of filing a false public record and violating the state election code. She returned to the bench a few weeks later.

Judges must be domiciled in the parish or district where they serve for at least a year prior to election, under the state constitution.

For years, King maintained a homestead exemption for a house she owns on Chancer Lane in Slidell — including in 2008, when she lost a bid for an Orleans Parish Criminal District Court seat.

Caldwell’s office has declined to detail its case against King, saying only that it first received a complaint against her in April 2013, prior to the May 4 runoff in which King beat out former Jefferson Parish prosecutor Doug Hammel in her fifth try for public office. King has been serving out the term of Tracey Flemings-Davillier, who now sits on the criminal court bench.

Hammel could not be reached late Thursday. Cynthia Samuels, who lost in the primary but went on to complain about residency concerns for both Hammel and King in a formal letter to Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office, said Thursday that she never spoke to the FBI about the matter or heard of any federal inquiry.

In his Wednesday filing, Williams echoed an earlier argument by King that she received the homestead exemption “unknowingly and improperly” from the St. Tammany Parish Assessor’s Office under a prior policy of the office to grant such exemptions automatically in some cases.

Assessor’s Office documents seem to suggest otherwise, showing that King signed an application for a homestead exemption on the Slidell house on Sept. 8, 2006. An exemption is available only on a residence that an applicant lives in on a permanent, daily basis.

St. Tammany assessor’s records show that King filed last year to remove the homestead exemption retroactively for 2011 and 2012.

Her attorney at the time of the indictment, Clarence Roby Jr., said she has paid back her gains from claiming the exemption, which — with some exceptions — allows eligible homeowners to pay no taxes on the first $75,000 of the value of their property.

King’s signature also appears on a declaration of covenants for a Road Home grant recorded in January 2008 for the Chancer Lane property, court records show. In the declaration, King pledged to occupy the property as her primary residence within three years.

In its five-page recommendation, unsealed Thursday, the Judiciary Commission found that the alleged crimes against King “reflect adversely on her honesty, trustworthiness, and fitness as a judicial officer” — a standard under Supreme Court rules for the court to disqualify a judge.

“The Judiciary Commission is of the opinion that Judge King should not be exercising judicial functions while she is facing serious felony criminal charges,” the commission said.

It’s unclear whether any other elected officials in the state have faced criminal prosecution for supposedly lying about their home addresses, although many candidates have faced court challenges to their residencies. It also appears rare that a judge facing criminal charges has remained on the bench, at least for long.

Chief Judge Bernette Johnson recused herself from the decision. King worked as a research attorney for Johnson about five years ago.

All 12 Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges have recused themselves from King’s criminal case, and the Supreme Court has appointed retired Judge Michael Kirby from Plaquemines Parish to preside over the case.

King remains free on her own recognizance, under a $30,000 bond obligation set by Criminal District Judge Arthur Hunter on March 24, when King pleaded not guilty to the charges in the indictment.

Attorneys for juvenile defendants who have appeared before King following her indictment have filed repeated motions for her to recuse herself, arguing that she can’t be fair ruling on state prosecutions when she faces one herself. King has rejected most of those motions.

Valerie Willard, a spokeswoman for the Supreme Court, said the court has not made a decision on finding a temporary replacement for King.