Racist video connected to Lafayette judge sows doubt in her impartiality, spurs reviews of cases before her

Dec. 31 UPDATE: Odinet resigned from her seat on Dec. 30, the Louisiana Supreme Court confirmed.

UPDATE: Odinet was temporarily disqualified from the bench by the Louisiana Supreme Court on Dec. 16 while complaints about her use of the n-word are investigated. The high court appointed retired Opelousas City Judge Vanessa Harris to serve the Lafayette City Court until Feb. 28.

UPDATE: A second recusal motion was filed Tuesday afternoon by the Sallinger law firm on behalf of its client, Devin Baltazar, who is Black. View it here.

As calls mount for Lafayette City Court Judge Michelle Odinet to resign, the first of what may be many recusal motions was filed in City Court Tuesday morning. 

Lafayette criminal defense attorney Barry Sallinger is asking Odinet to recuse herself from one of his cases involving a Black defendant, De’Edrick Lawrence, who was placed on two years of supervised probation by the judge in September after pleading no contest to second offense OWI. 

In the petition, Sallinger cites a video connecting Odinet to racist language in arguing she cannot preside as an impartial judge overseeing his client’s compliance with the probation order. 

“Judge Odinet has unequivocally, by her own words, shown that she is prejudiced and bias (sic) against African Americans,” Sallinger’s motion reads. “Her free and flippant use of a vile, derogatory term to describe an African American man can result in no other conclusion.”

First reported by The Current Monday, the video captured bigoted remarks dropped casually in Odinet’s home, as her family gathered to watch home security footage of a foiled car burglary in their driveway. In the clip, in which no faces are evident, witnesses jokingly toss around the n-word while narrating the home security footage of their efforts to stop a man from breaking into a car on their driveway.

“We will be filing more today,” Sallinger says. “Mr. Lawrence was the most urgent.” If Odinet refuses to recuse herself, Sallinger is requesting a hearing before a different judge.

Because the video undermines Odinet’s claims of impartiality, Sallinger says other attorneys representing minority defendants or probationers are likely to pursue a similar tack. As of 1 p.m. today, Sallinger’s was the only motion filed. 

Disclosure: Barry Sallinger made a contribution to The Current in 2018. See our list of donors here. 

“There’s going to be some disruption in the court’s proceedings,” says G. Paul Marx, who heads the 15th Judicial District Public Defenders office, which is also reviewing cases it is handling. “In most cases, we owe the clients that motion to recuse if the race of the client [is Black], the race of the victim, all of those considerations. … You can’t really have a judge who has a whole category of folks she can’t adjudicate on,” he says. “We can’t just ignore what’s happened. It’s pretty egregious, I think.

“It’s kind of an unprecedented situation,” Marx continues. “I think probably the [Louisiana] Supreme Court is going to have to figure out what’s going to happen because you have to have something that the people are going to have confidence [the judge is] going to be fair.” 

The first step toward addressing potential judicial misconduct begins with a complaint to the state Judiciary Commission, a nine-member body empowered to review allegations of judicial misconduct and recommend to the Supreme Court whether a judge should be sanctioned. In Odinet’s case, multiple complaints have already been filed, as a complaint form is being widely circulated on social media. 

Odinet did not return a text message asking if she plans to resign. Judge Odinet is married to Lafayette Parish Coroner Ken Odinet, a plastic surgeon. It’s unknown whether the coroner, also an elected official (re-elected unopposed in 2019), was present at the time the racist video was recorded. At press time, he had not responded to an emailed request for comment and a message left at this office.

Judges have faced stiff penalties for racist activities before. In 2004, for example, the Louisiana Supreme Court gave a six-month suspension to District Court Judge Timothy C. Ellender of Terrebonne Parish after he dressed in blackface, handcuffs and a prison jumpsuit for a Halloween party at a restaurant. Last year, District Court Judge Jessie LeBlanc of Assumption Parish resigned after using the n-word in text messages to a former lover. Gov. John Bel Edwards joined calls for her resignation. A message to Edwards’ press office seeking comment is pending. 

Read Sallinger’s motion here. This story will be updated as additional motions are filed. 

Editor’s Note: Readers asked why coroner Ken Odinet was not mentioned in our first story on the video filed Monday. Judge Odinet’s comments did not connect him to the incident nor could we confirm he was present when the video was made. The Current decided not to reference their relationship until more reporting could be completed.