Judge Michelle Odinet of the City Court of Lafayette, Louisiana, resigned last week after being heard on a video using the term “nigger” while watching security footage of a foiled car burglary outside her home. In her letter of resignation to the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, Odinet said she was stepping down “after much reflection and prayer, and in order to facilitate healing within the community.”
“My words did not foster the public’s confidence and integrity for the judiciary,” she wrote. Yeah, I would say that that’s accurate. Still, it’s a strange story. In the video, voices off camera inside the judge’s home are heard saying “nigger” repeatedly and laughing as they watch security-camera footage of someone trying to break into a car until the criminal was foiled. Also used: “mom,” which is the judge, who was clearly joining in the hilarity.
The video was originally sent by an unknown source to a local newspaper, and when she was first questioned, Odinet tried to huminhumina out of the mess. She initially said she had no recollection of the conversation shown, and claimed that her “mental state was fragile” because of the attempted burglary. She also used the excuse that she had been “given a sedative at the time of the video.” Then she played the Pazuzu card (“That’s not me talking!”) protesting that “Anyone who knows me and my husband, knows this is contrary to the way we live our lives.”
Finally, the judge couldn’t deny that the jig was up. The Lafayette branch of the NAACP demanded that she resign. Criminal defense lawyers representing black clients demanded that the judge to recuse herself from their cases. Odinet’s lawyer confirmed that she had used the racial slur in the video, though it did not show the faces of those speaking.
“There was never going to be a situation where African Americans would appear before her and not file motions to recuse,” the lawyer said, accurately. “She understands that she’s done with being a judge, but she’s just starting her efforts to try to earn forgiveness from her community. She knows that’s going to be a long haul.”
I think she will have to change her name, get plastic surgery and move to Kamchatka.
Now the ex-judge’s records are being examined to determine if her handling of cases involving blacks showed signs of bias. Her lawyer says, “She welcomes that because it would show that she hasn’t, in practice, acted as a racist.”
1. Nobody is saying who sent the video to the local paper. It had to be someone present during the discussion. This was either a true betrayal of trust for malicious purposes, or a public-minded whistle-blowing incident to expose a racist judge.
2. The latter is admirable, if she is in fact a racist. The former is despicable.
3. Of course once the judge’s use of the taboo word—completely legal and constitutionally protected, used in what was believed to be a private setting as a group was maligning a criminal—had to be disqualifying once it was revealed to the public. But is the use of the word in a group definitive proof of racism all by itself?
4. The episode has similarities to the Donald Sterling case, when an NBA team owner was secretly recorded in his own bedroom by his girlfriend as he made denigrating comments about minorities, resulting in his being fined and losing his team. He was about to be honored by the local NAACP before the tape was released.
5. To be clear, the use of the word in a publicly-revealed recording is sufficient to count as a judicial ethics violation, as it raises the appearance of impropriety. But what should be our conclusion if the review of the judge’s rulings show no racial bias whatsoever? Would that make her a non-racist who just uses inappropriate language with family and friends? Or would that show that she is a racist who still understands that racist conduct is not acceptable for a public official?
6. If it is the latter, should her thoughts and biases disqualify her for an office of trust?
7. With these facts, there could be no question that the judge had to resign. Would the same apply if she never uttered the word “nigger” in the video, but was part of the conversation in which others used the word?