Fourth Judicial District Court officials have drawn a line in the sand and agreed to punish attorneys who voice support for Monroe businessman Stanley Palowsky’s ongoing lawsuit against court officials, a judge testified earlier this week.
In a recusal trial at the Ouachita Parish Courthouse on Tuesday, Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Sharon Marchman testified that Chief Judge Robert Johnson previously made comments exhibiting bias toward any attorneys who might defend her or Palowsky.
In 2015, Palowsky sued Allyson Campbell, a law clerk at the district court, for concealing or destroying documents he filed in a separate lawsuit against his former business partner, Brandon Cork. Palowsky also sued Fourth Judicial District Court judges Fred Amman, Ben Jones, Wilson Rambo, Carl Sharp and Stephens Winters.
According to Palowsky, the five defendant judges conspired to cover up Campbell’s activities. Amman, Jones and Sharp have since retired from the bench, though Jones now serves as the court’s administrator.
As an attorney practicing the law, Marchman served as legal counsel for Palowsky’s father, Stanley Palowsky Jr. She was elected to the bench in 2000. She sued some of her colleagues at the district court on similar grounds to Palowsky’s lawsuit in 2016, though a federal judge ultimately dismissed her claims.
“I’ve heard many comments about lawyers who support Palowsky or me will find disfavor in the 4th JDC,” said Marchman, while under oath on Tuesday.
The recusal trial was held as part of Vamsi Krishna Thokala v. Sreeniva T. Taikonda and others, an October 2021 lawsuit in which Vamsi Thokala accused Dr. Sreenivasa Taikonda and his wife, Lukshmi, as well as their business, Ganapathi Restaurants LLC, of using his Social Security number to report income and revenues from the couple’s restaurant.
“Although plaintiff (Thokala) has never been associated in any way with Ganapathi Restaurants LLC, its income and revenue continues to be reported by Square (a mobile payment platform) as if it were plaintiff’s,” stated the Oct. 21, 2021 petition.
Thokala, the plaintiff, said the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) claimed he owed some $87,000 for the tax year 2019 as a result of revenue reported under his name.
“Plaintiff and the individual defendants were thought to be friends, but plaintiff has been betrayed by his so-called friends,” stated the October 2021 petition. “This has resulted in grave mental anguish.”
Monroe attorney James Rountree is representing Thokala while Monroe attorneys Hutton Banks, and his father, Sedric, represent the Taikondas.
Sedric Banks also is one of Palowsky’s attorneys in his lawsuit against Campbell and the district court judges. Sedric Banks served as one of Marchman’s attorneys in her federal lawsuit against Campbell and the judges.
Johnson is presiding over the Thokala v. Taikonda case but has not voluntarily recused from the matter. Hutton Banks and Sedric Banks filed the motion to recuse Johnson from the case, claiming the judge could not impartially preside over the Thokala v. Taikonda case in light of his remarks about the Palowsky litigation.
“(Johnson’s) paraphrased statement, ‘If you sue one of us (judges), you sue us all of us (judges)’ qualifies as (presumptive) bias against counsel who Judge Johnson perceives to have sued him, personally, in connection with allegations Judge Johnson has a duty to investigate,” stated the Banks’ supplemental memorandum in support of the motion to recuse.
Retired Judge Jimmie Peters, who previously served on the state Third Circuit Court of Appeal, is presiding over the recusal trial in Thokala v. Taikonda.
Hutton Banks and his father have previously argued that Johnson also has an obligation to recuse himself from the Thokala v. Taikonda case and others in light of his previous voluntary recusal from “other cases handled by mover’s counsel for much the same, if not exactly the same, grounds as urged here,” they wrote in a supplemental memorandum.
“There is an intolerable, intentional bias,” Hutton Banks said.
Early in the recusal trial on Tuesday, Peters questioned whether Hutton Banks had presented enough evidence to support Johnson’s recusal.
“I’ve seen an awful lot of smoke, but I haven’t seen any fire,” Peters said. “The Palowsky case is the monster case around here.”
According to Peters, the question for him was whether Johnson could be “really irritated” at an attorney but still rule fairly toward a client.
Later, Hutton Banks issued a subpoena to Marchman to testify during the recusal trial. Marchman waived her right to a contradictory hearing under Article 519 of the state Code of Evidence, meaning she could testify without first determining whether the plaintiff planned to obtain privileged information which she could not disclose under any circumstances.
Marchman’s testimony about what Johnson allegedly said during a meeting of district court judges on Tuesday marked the first time she had publicly revealed such information. Since 2017, claims and rumors have circulated in the courtroom and outside of it about Johnson’s remarks, but no one had reported hearing his remarks under oath until Tuesday.
After being sworn in, Marchman testified that, in 2015, then-Chief Judge Stephens Winters made a report to the judges’ en banc meeting to notify them that some of the judges had been sued by Palowsky.
“Judge Johnson commented, ‘We’ve all been sued,’” Marchman said. “He aligned with the judges, the defendants.”
“He took it personally,” she added.
Toward the end of Marchman’s testimony, Peters said he had not heard Marchman say anything that indicated bias on Johnson’s part. At that point, Marchman testified that Johnson had indicated attorneys who voiced support for Palowsky or Marchman would find “disfavor” in the courtroom at the district court.
Concerning Johnson’s response to the lawsuit, Marchman said, “He didn’t like that. He didn’t like that the suit was brought at all. He’s made other comments.”
Peters asked whether that meant Johnson might be inclined to punish Hutton Banks’ client just because of the relationship between Banks’ father with Marchman and Palowsky.
“I believe so,” Marchman said.
According to Marchman, she had heard several comments made that an attorney who actively supported the judges at the district court would find favor in the courtroom.
When asked to clarify the extent of bias among the district court’s other 10 judges, Marchman said “a significant portion” of them took a similar stance to Johnson.
“There is no testimony or evidence to controvert what you just heard,” Hutton Banks said.