The state disciplinary agency tasked with investigating judges says Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Sharon Marchman violated the judiciary’s ethics code through several acts including endorsing then-President Donald Trump in a judicial race three years ago.
The Judiciary Commission—a judicial oversight branch of the state Supreme Court—also is pursuing charges against Marchman for suggesting an opponent had ties to democratic socialist U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and more.
The charges against Marchman, of Monroe, stemmed from her two unsuccessful campaigns for the Second Circuit Court of Appeal in 2017 and 2018. Her opponent in those two races, James “Jimbo” Stephens, of Baskin, currently serves as judge at the appeal court.
The Ouachita Citizen has learned the Judiciary Commission began preparing its charges against Marchman prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but did not move the case until earlier this year, nearly three years after the complaints were first filed. The newspaper recently obtained a document filed in response to the Judiciary Commission’s notice of hearing in Marchman’s case.
In response to a notice of hearing bringing the charges, Marchman filed an Aug. 10 exception arguing the Judiciary Commission could not succeed on the standard of proof for the claims against her. According to Marchman, Stephens filed some of the complaints in October 2018.
For example, Marchman disputed the commission’s charge of transgressing the judicial canons when she identified herself as a “President Trump Republican.”
Under the Supreme Court’s Code of Judicial Conduct, a judicial candidate shall not publicly endorse or publicly oppose another candidate for public office or make speeches on behalf of a political organization.
“Her only reference to herself as a ‘President Trump Republican’ was a direct counter to her opponent’s statement and was only made at the outset of the ‘Front Porch’ video [published on Facebook],” stated Marchman’s exception. “At no time did Judge Marchman ever endorse President Trump as a candidate or hold herself out as speaking on behalf of the Republican Party.”
The burden of proof for conviction under the Judiciary Commission’s rules is a higher threshold than civil matters, requiring not a preponderance of evidence but clear and convincing evidence.
According to the charges, Marchman allegedly made “false or misleading statements” in October 2018 when she told the Ouachita Parish Women’s Republican Club that Stephens was a “registered Independent, the party of Bernie Sanders.”
The Judiciary Commission claimed it also was false or misleading for Marchman’s campaign to sponsor a radio advertisement that stated, “The Republican Party has a clear leader in Donald Trump while the leader of the Independent Party is Bernie Sanders.”
At the time, Stephens was registered as a member of the Independent Party, a political party. Sanders was an independent, meaning he had no official party affiliation, though he associated with the Democratic Party.
Marchman’s exception quoted from a complaint supposedly filed by Stephens on Oct. 22, 2018. In his complaint, Stephens contested Marchman’s statements tying him to “Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders.”
“Judge Marchman’s insistence on labeling me as a Socialist-leaning Sanders Supporter is highly offensive and a gross misstatement of the truth,” stated a quote from Stephens’ complaint. “This type of deception has no place in any election campaign, let alone a Judicial race.”
In her exception, Marchman said she identified herself as the only Republican in the judicial race in response to Stephens’ claim he was a “Trump Independent.”
“The actual statement that she made refers to the fact that Judge Stephens was previously a registered Republican, but had changed to Independent prior to the 2017 campaign,” stated Marchman’s exception. “Her actual statement was, ‘He’s trying to play both sides of the fence and in doing that, he has rejected the Republican Party and its Christian conservative values.”
The Judiciary Commission also charged Marchman with making “false or misleading statements” when her campaign stated Stephens’ law firm, Stephens & Stephens, was paid to defend Sonny James Caston, who was convicted of murdering West Carroll Parish sheriff’s deputy Jeffery Gathings. Stephens operated the law firm with his father, Sonny Stephens.
According to a quote from Stephens’ Oct. 26, 2018 complaint to the Judiciary Commission, Marchman’s advertisement was misleading because another attorney in Stephens & Stephens—his father—was appointed to defend Caston.
Marchman’s campaign advertisement also referred to an April 11, 2018 ruling issued by the Second Circuit—including Stephens—to reverse Lance Johnson’s burglary conviction in State v. Lance Andrew Johnson. Referring to Stephens, Marchman’s campaign advertisement stated, “Then he reversed a jury’s conviction of a burglar with a 12-page criminal history.”
Concerning the ruling issued in State v. Johnson, a quote from Stephens’ complaint stated, “Additionally, Judge Marchman references our Court’s reversal of a lower court conviction in a burglary case, asserting that I turned a burglar loose with a 12-page rap sheet.
“For reference, the trial court had tried this individual with a [six-man] jury, though the [State Constitution] specifically requires a 12-man jury. We unanimously reversed and the case is still pending as to the retrial.”
Marchman argued her sourced references to a published decision of an appeal court could not be expected to affect the outcome of a case or impair its fairness, referring to judicial conduct codes against such behavior.
According to Marchman, the Judiciary Commission’s own notice of hearing acknowledged the truth of the statements in Marchman’s campaign advertisement.
Covington attorney Joe Ward Jr. is representing Marchman in her Judiciary Commission proceeding.
The Ouachita Citizen also has learned an investigator with the Judiciary Commission was conducting interviews earlier this year as part of an investigation of Marchman’s other activities during the 2017 and 2018 races.
The investigator interviewed attorneys and others in northeastern Louisiana and in Baton Rouge.