A federal district court granted an ankle monitoring company’s motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit challenging the company’s violation of New Orleans criminal defendants’ right to neutral adjudication in conjunction with former Judge Paul A. Bonin. The plaintiffs, Marshall Sookram and Hakeem Meade, will appeal the decision.
Represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), Sookram and Meade—former Orleans Parish Criminal District Court defendants—sued ETOH Monitoring, LLC (ETOH) and Judge Bonin last May for violating the constitutional rights of dozens of criminal defendants. Marshall, Hakeem and others were ordered to pay ETOH for expensive pretrial ankle monitoring while unaware that Judge Bonin and ETOH had significant personal, financial and political relationships. ETOH’s two executives together donated and loaned over $9,600 to Judge Bonin’s judicial election campaigns. Worse yet, one of those executives was Judge Bonin’s former longtime law partner.
“The type of relationship and taint of the judicial process that we challenged cannot be allowed to stand,” said IJ Senior Attorney William Maurer. “This decision permits the machineries of the criminal justice system to be tied to the financial interests of for-profit, private companies. We will be appealing immediately.”
The federal court’s opinion claims that the relationship between Judge Bonin (who stepped down from the state court after this class action was filed) and ETOH does not give rise to a profit incentive claim because “Plaintiffs’ allegations depend on the specific relationship between former Judge Bonin and ETOH and therefore fail to state an institutional incentives claim.” But that immunizes from judicial scrutiny any claim that a particular judge’s courtroom is operating in a manner that prioritizes profit over neutral adjudication as long as no other judges on the court have the same ties to the particular company at issue.
“The federal court just held that a private company’s profit incentive can influence the operation of a criminal court as long as the arrangement might be unique to one judge. That cannot be the law,” said IJ Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili.
The plaintiffs dismissed Judge Bonin from the lawsuit late last year following his announcement that he would be stepping down after his term ended in December 2020. Judge Bonin’s decision to retire did not result in ETOH giving back the money it collected in tainted proceedings, however. It also was not a recognition of the harm to the rights of defendants appearing in Judge Bonin’s courtroom. Nor did it protect future litigants from being deprived of their rights in cases involving similar ties between judges and private companies. IJ and the plaintiffs will therefore continue to pursue this lawsuit and ensure that criminal defendants are free from the appearance or actuality of decisions influenced by a judge’s ties to a private party.
IJ, Marshall and Hakeem will now appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and seek to vindicate the constitutional cornerstone of adjudication untainted by the profit incentives of private companies operating in the legal system.