If there’s a tragic postlude to the sanctioning and departure of U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr., it’s in the question of whether the federal judiciary and public would have been better served by his impeachment rather than his decision to quit last month. In any case, his decision shelves further investigation of his judicial behavior, up to and including his “misrepresenting” facts to special investigators of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Say what you will of Smith’s detractors. When you’re caught manipulating facts to a federal appeals court, credibility is out the window. It’s time to go. The sooner, the better.
Last winter, the Judicial Council of the New Orleans-based appellate court found Smith made “inappropriate and unwanted physical and nonphysical sexual advances toward a court employee” in his Waco chambers in 1998. It found he “allowed false factual assertions to be made in response to the complaint,” filed in 2014. And, through the “lateness of his admissions,” he helped drag out the court inquiry and heaped more taxpayer expense on it — not bad for a judge who, even in his yearlong suspension from any new cases, continued making more than $200,000 a year.
In fact, most of the local uproar involving Smith’s decision to retire before a follow-up investigation might spur impeachment focused on the fact the 75-year-old will continue to make $203,100 a year. His bare-bones, two-sentence letter to President Obama resigning his post makes clear he expects to receive, “during the remainder of my lifetime, an annuity equal to the salary I was receiving at the time of retirement.”
Our respect for the federal judiciary as the one branch of government that at least attempts avoiding crass partisanship remains strong. Yet cases such as Smith’s fuel cries for reform of the judiciary, including scrapping its lifetime appointments. Even great admirers of the federal judiciary such as constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar, who spoke on such matters at Baylor University a few years ago, suggest reforms are in order, given that lifetime appointments meant something far more limited when Framers crafted the Constitution in 1787.
Because impeachments are rare and the federal judiciary can balk in its watchdog duties over what counters “good behavior” (as is required of such judges by the Constitution), some scholars suggest that federal judges are vulnerable to everything from creeping senility to authoritarian leanings as little accountability is actually demanded. One proposal: a constitutional amendment prescribing a term of 18 years with renewal thereafter only upon a vote of the U.S. Senate, assuming that disgraced body can one day be made to truly function. Such terms would ensure the judicial independence that the Framers sought — but without allowing judges to evolve into something no Framer intended.