Helen “Ginger” Berrigan was appointed to a federal judgeship in the Eastern District of Louisiana on November 18, 1993 by former President Bill Clinton, and was confirmed by the Senate the following year. Edwin Edwards was in the second year of his fourth term as Governor of Louisiana when Berrigan secured the federal judgeship appointment. She had been closely associated with legendary attorney and political power broker Camille Gravel since her graduation from the Louisiana State University Law School in 1977. Gravel served as Edwards’ executive counsel during the governor’s first two terms in office (1972-1980) and his Alexandria-based law firm had actively defended Edwards in a litany of federal corruption probes. Berrigan worked on the Edwards’ defense team which secured a mistrial for the governor in 1985 on a number of federal corruption charges and which won an acquittal at the governor’s re-trial in 1986. Grateful for the legal assistance she had provided to his defense team, Edwards lent the support of his political machine to back Berrigan for the federal judgeship once Bill Clinton became president.
In his memoir, In The Place of Justice (Random House 2010, Wilbert Rideau said he first met Berrigan, who was just “Ginger Roberts” then, while she was still a law student at LSU and who, along with a number of other law students, had joined Louisiana Corrections Secretary C. Paul Phelps in a project to work with jailhouse lawyers at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. A staunch political liberal and longtime supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Berrigan formed a personal relationship with Rideau (at Phelps’ behest) which subsequently morphed into a pro bono attorney-client relationship.
I met Berrigan in the late 1970s or early ‘80s. I retained her briefly in 1984 to represent me in a habeas corpus proceeding I had pending in a local federal court. Ginger and I maintained a cordial, professional relationship with her. It never resembled the personal relationship she maintained with Rideau although our paths frequently crossed during the course of all our relationships, including the one with Phelps. I never really trusted Ginger because she was too close to Edwards and the political power base in Baton Rouge which, at the time, was devoted to keeping me in prison for the rest of my life. Ginger, I suspect, had the same distrust for me.
Rideau stated in his memoir (page 315) that “ … Since it was my truthfulness while testifying that was at stake, we [the “million dollar defense team”] would call ‘character witnesses’ only to establish that single point.” Berrigan, who was Chief Judge of the Eastern District at the time, was called to testify about whether Rideau had truthfully testified that he had written a letter of apology to his crime victims decades earlier. She confirmed that portion of his testimony. Later in his memoir (page 321) Rideau referred to Berrigan as a “character witness.”
“Did it raise red flags with the jury that so many of the character witnesses for me were prevented from saying much?” he wrote. “I prayed that having a federal judge, a state appellate judge, two wardens, and a corrections officer vouching for my truthfulness would mean something to those all-important ten women and two men who held my fate in their hands.”
I don’t know how Rideau’s defense team presented Judge Berrigan as a witness at the trial. She may have been called to simply verify one single point: that Rideau had in fact written a letter to his crime victims decades earlier; that he had given the letter to her because she was his attorney at the time; and that she made sure the victims received the letter. That did not necessarily make her a “character” witness unless she vouched for Rideau’s overall character for truthfulness.
That’s an important distinction because Canon 2(B) of the “Code of Conduct for United States Judges“ specifically states: “Outside Influence. A judge should not allow family, social, political, financial, or other relationships to influence judicial conduct or judgment. A judge should neither lend the prestige of the judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others nor convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge. A judge should not testify voluntarily as a character witness.”
Rideau presented Judge Berrigan as a “character” witness in his memoir—and that’s why federal judges are prohibited from testifying as character witnesses in judicial proceedings. It allows “others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge,” which is what Rideau did in his memoir. Judge Berrigan had obvious “private interests” in Rideau due to her longstanding personal and professional relationship with him. Rideau implied in his memoir that the federal judge just so happened to show up at his trial as the exact moment when her testimony was needed to corroborate his testimony about the letter of apology to the victims. That may or may not have been the case.
But one thing is clear: if Judge Berrigan was not put on the defense team’s “witness list” and had not been expected to testify to vouch for Rideau’s truthfulness, then she “voluntarily” chose to testify in a situation which allowed the famed prison journalist to describe her as a “character witness” in his memoir.
This would not mark the first time Judge Berrigan has faced serious questions about the propriety of her judicial conduct. She has been roundly accused of handling cases from the bench in which she had “conflicts of interest,” to the point that some have called for her impeachment and censure. I am really not certain that Judge Berrigan’s testimony—if it concerned the sole issue about the letter of apology—could properly be characterized as “character witness” testimony. But that’s not the point: the point is that Rideau called her a “character witness” in his memoir—and that may not be true.
It depends. Either Judge Berrigan was or wasn’t a “character witness” for Rideau. If she was, then she violated her own canons of judicial conduct. And if she wasn’t a character witness, then Rideau lied when he said she was in his memoir—and isn’t that ironical! He lists a number of “character witnesses” in his memoir who vouched for his truthfulness yet he lied about one of them. As I have said repeatedly in various posts on this website, the truth is never enough for Rideau. He has an insatiable need to embellish to enhance his own sense of importance. He is a genuine “spin doctor.”