Constitutional drama, under our noses, off the radar

What about that impeachment trial, eh?  Planning to watch it?

Your best bet might be C-SPAN, but I wouldn’t wager the mortgage were I you.

Impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in the U.S. Senate, 1868; from Harper's Weekly, April 11, 1868 - public domain

Impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in the U.S. Senate, 1868; from Harper's Weekly, April 11, 1868 - public domain

Federal Judge Thomas Porteous of New Orleans got four articles of impeachment approved against him by the U.S. House of Representatives on March 10.  The first article got a nearly unanimous vote — who says the House is divided? — 412 to 0.  Three other articles got similar margins, 410-0, 416-0, and 423-0.

Unless you live in New Orleans or have a strange fascination for that great newspaper, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, you probably heard nothing about this great Constitutional drama. If you get the Times-Picayune, you’ve had good coverage of the issue so far.

Under its own special rules of impeachment, the Senate appointed a committee led by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, which will hold the actual trial and report results to the full Senate for action.  Sen. McCaskill said she expects the trial to begin in early August, and that the report to the full Senate could come as soon as September.

While news media and bloggers chase ghosts and hoaxes, real work continues in Washington, D.C.  You just don’t hear much about it.

You likely have not heard of Judge Proteous’s troubles, though they are long-standing, because the issue was a local, Louisiana and New Orleans affair.  Heaven knows New Orleans has had its share of other stories to knock off the front pages the ethical lapses of a sitting federal judge who was once a promising attorney.

Should you have heard?  How can we judge?  Should we not be concerned when a relatively important story is not only bumped to the back pages of newspapers, but bumped completely out of them, and off the radar of people who need to be informed about how well our government works?

My alert to this story came through a back-door route.  On the list-serv for AP Government, someone asked who presides at the impeachment trial of the Chief Justice — remember, the Constitution spells out that the Chief Justice is the presiding officer in the impeachment of the President or Vice President.  My memory is that the Senate rules on impeachments, and there is a committee that effectively presides, and that the impeachment of a Vice President or President merits special attention because the Vice President is the official, Constitutionally-mentioned presiding officer.  We can’t have the vice president presiding at the trial of himself or herself, nor of the president.  Looking up impeachment procedures, I stumbled across the pending impeachment of Judge Porteous.  I don’t think it has appeared in our local newspaper, The Dallas Morning News.

Other judges have been impeached.  Here in Texas, within the past three years, we had a federal judge impeached, Samuel Kent.  You’d think Texas media would be sensitive to such stories. (Kent resigned before the trial could begin.)

I perceive that media are ignoring several important areas of federal governing, not necessarily intentionally, but instead by being distracted by nonentity stories or stories that just don’t deserve the inflated coverage they get.  Among undercovered areas are the environment, energy research, higher education, foreign aid, management of public lands and justice, including indictments, trials and convictions.  A vast gray hole where should be the news of Judge Porteous’s pending impeachment is just one symptom.

Several news outlets carried stories:


2 Responses to Constitutional drama, under our noses, off the radar

  1. […] Remember last summer I told you about the impeachment of New Orleans federal Judge Thomas Porteus? […]


  2. j a higginbotham says:

    not the only local judge in trouble

    Judge Sonja Spears, husband owe almost $700,000 in back taxes
    By Ramon Antonio Vargas, The Times-Picayune
    May 06, 2010, 7:32PM

    A 1st City Court judge who recently drew the attention of federal authorities for receiving a local salary while living part time in a Boston suburb owes at least $692,605 in back taxes to state, local and federal governments.

    Sonja M. Spears and her husband, lawyer Ike Spears, owe $424,666 in unpaid income tax to the U.S. government by May 31, according to a lien filed in New Orleans’ Office of the Recorder of Mortgages. Another lien indicates the couple owes $222,695 in overdue income tax to the Louisiana Department of Revenue by the same date.

    On the local level, the Spearses are deeply in arrears on their property taxes, according to city Bureau of Treasury records available online. Those records show they owe $45,689 on five of six properties they own in New Orleans. Nearly half of the back taxes are due on a property they own on Elysian Fields Avenue; the rest is distributed between two properties on Marigny Street and one each on Fontainebleau Drive and Hickory Street.

    Raymond Gregson, a former senior special agent with the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal division, said the Spearses’ tax figures are most likely a combination of actual owed taxes, back taxes, late penalties and accumulated interest.

    According to Gregson, the fact that liens were filed does not indicate that the couple are under any criminal investigation by the IRS.

    $1.3 million Boston home

    It may, however, raise questions about how Spears and her husband were able to afford a $1.3 million home in the Boston suburb of Needham, where their daughters attend school. The town is at least a 1,500-mile drive from New Orleans.

    Messages to Sonja and Ike Spears were not returned Thursday. Tanzie Jones, a spokeswoman for 1st City Court, said she could not issue statements about the family’s personal finances.

    Federal authorities on Tuesday subpoenaed documents that track the schedule, payment and even the movements of Sonja Spears, who is originally from Massachusetts. Investigators are seeking to determine how often Spears shows up to work.

    The subpoena compels the 1st City Court’s clerk to provide the following documents by May 21: Spears’ personnel file; all payments made to Spears, payroll and otherwise; credit card records and expense reports; security video, including all entrances and exits from the Civil Courts building from Feb. 1 to present; and records regarding the docket, schedule and days Spears actually worked.

    A report that aired Wednesday on WVUE-TV suggested that some of those records could mask Spears’ comings and goings. The report noted that Spears’ entry card for the civil court building was used on days when the station caught her on camera in Massachusetts.

    Replacement judges assigned

    While that report suggested Spears was often a no-show in her courtroom, records obtained by The Times-Picayune do not indicate she sought a fill-in judge on many occasions. Those records show Spears applied for, and was granted, medical leave from April 7 to May 6, 2008, as well as Jan. 26 to March 30, 2009. Spears told the Louisiana Supreme Court she needed surgery, and replacement judges were assigned to cover her court during that time.

    Spears unseated a longtime incumbent to win her office in 1998. The court decides civil suits that seek damages of $20,000 or less, as well as evictions and claims for unpaid bills.

    A statement issued by the judge claims she “has never hidden the fact that she owns property in Massachusetts. … Equally as important, she is not the only local judge or elected official who owns property outside of Louisiana or who has allowed his/her children to attend school outside of Louisiana post-Katrina.”

    Jones’ statement added that despite Spears’ medical problems, the judge “has operated her court fairly and efficiently, and all litigants seeking to have a matter heard in her court can do so in a timely manner.”


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