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Removing a justice of the peace in Louisiana no cakewalk

  • Story Highlights
  • State statute doesn't require justices of peace to perform marriage ceremonies
  • Power to oust justice of the peace rests with Louisiana Supreme Court
  • Judiciary Commission would make recommendations to the court
  • Supreme Court spokeswoman Valerie Willard: "It's up to the judges"
By Khadijah Rentas
CNN
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(CNN) -- Two disgruntled Louisiana newlyweds have called for the dismissal of a justice of the peace who refused to marry the interracial couple, and have even been joined in their fight by the governor, who said the official's license should be revoked.

Beth and Terence McKay say they are still hurt over the controversy surrounding their marriage.

The removal of embattled Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell lies with the Louisiana Supreme Court.

But unseating a Louisiana justice of the peace isn't easy.

Beth and Terence McKay -- who are now married -- stepped into the national spotlight when Keith Bardwell, a justice of the peace for Tangipahoa Parish's 8th Ward, refused them a license.

Bardwell told Hammond's Daily Star last week that he was concerned for the children who might be born of the relationship and that, in his experience, most interracial marriages don't last.

"I'm not a racist," Bardwell told the newspaper. "I do ceremonies for black couples right here in my house. My main concern is for the children."

Despite a national uproar and a call by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal for him to lose his license, Bardwell, 56, said he has no regrets. "It's kind of hard to apologize for something that you really and truly feel down in your heart you haven't done wrong," he told CNN affiliate WAFB on Saturday.

A state statute says justices of the peace may perform marriage ceremonies, but it does not require such officials to do so, Tammi Arender, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana attorney general, told CNN on Monday.

To push for Bardwell's removal, the McKays must look to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Justices of the peace in Louisiana are elected, but the state's high court has jurisdiction over whether they can keep their jobs, Louisiana Supreme Court spokeswoman Valerie Willard said. The Judiciary Commission, a judicial body independent of the Supreme Court, has the power to review a case and make recommendations to the high court.

After receiving a complaint, the Judiciary Commission would determine whether the grievance was frivolous. Anyone can file a complaint; no attorney is needed, Willard said, though Beth McKay said she has retained one.

The commission would proceed with an investigation if there were allegations of ethical misconduct, or arguments that the justice of the peace was in violation of professional responsibility, Willard said.

An investigation could take months or even a year, Willard said. And with closed-door hearings and records of investigations kept confidential, it's hard to tell how long the average investigation lasts. A lawyer from the Office of the Special Counsel, a branch of the commission, would prosecute the elected official, who would have an opportunity to defend himself.

During the investigation, if the prosecutor could show the official was hindering the fair and due implementation of his job, the commission could suggest that the Louisiana Supreme Court enact a temporary suspension with pay. Barring such an incident, the justice of the peace could continue to oversee cases throughout the commission's confidential investigation.

If the nine-member commission, by majority decision, decided the official acted unethically, it would recommend sanctions to the court. Those recommendations and the commission's findings would be public.

Willard could not say whether Bardwell would be brought to the commission or what its decision would be.

"It's up to the judges to interpret the law," she said.

If Bardwell were brought before the commission and it decided against him, recommended sanctions could include a public censure, suspension with or without pay, or removal.

The court, after reviewing the commission's findings, could follow the commission's suggestions or opt for stronger or weaker sanctions. Or the seven-member court could decide the justice of the peace did not behave unethically, which would allow him to keep his job, Willard said.

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