Well-Known New Orleans Juvenile Judge Steps Down Amid Controversy

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Judge David Bell, the former chief juvenile judge of the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court in Louisiana and a prominent participant in a national detention reform movement, resigned last month instead of fighting allegations of sexual misconduct by several women involved in his court.

Bell told Youth Today that he now regrets resigning, after the Louisiana Judiciary Commission yesterday publicized part of a report that claims that Bell harassed some women at the courthouse and dated two of his subordinates.

“My biggest regret here is that I resigned as opposed to staying there and fighting the charges,” Bell said. “I resigned so the good work we did wouldn’t be tarnished and drug through the mud. I see now I should have [fought the allegations]…there's no way to keep mud from being slung."

Bell, 40, stepped down on June 17, two days after the Louisiana Supreme Court ordered him to stay out of the courthouse until disciplinary proceedings began.

Bell started his own law firm in 1996 and was elected to the bench in 2004. He assumed his new position just before Hurricane Katrina struck the city in August of 2005, and the judge saw the aftermath of the storm as an opportunity to address a number of problems with the way the court worked.

With only a small population having returned to the city, Bell used the free time and a crew of volunteers to identify any of the staggering 26,500 open juvenile cases that could be closed. (For more on this, read Hope Springs from Katrina’s Rubble,” September 2006.)

He said on an internet radio show last August that his own indiscretions in life helped him differentiate from the bench between what was normal juvenile behavior and what was actual delinquency.

“I got in trouble growing up … during my teenage years,” Bell told Juvenile Justice Matters, a production of the Campaign for Youth Justice. “I probably still get in trouble on occasion, truth be told.”

Bell was a leader on the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative project in New Orleans, which the parish took on in partnership with the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation. Bell has been a speaker at Casey’s national JDAI events, and in 2007 CNN profiled his work on reducing detention usage.

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) named Bell to the Louisiana Advisory Board of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2008.

In January, Bell placed himself on medical leave indefinitely. Records included in yesterday’s report show that Bell was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by doctors at Memorial Hospital in Gulfport, Miss. They also told him to attend anonymous groups for alcoholics and sex addicts.

Bell remained on medical leave until April. But in mid-March, fellow juvenile judge Ernestine Gray lodged the complaint that eventually led to a two-volume report by the judiciary commission. The report publicized yesterday contains all of the first volume, except for certain information regarding Bell’s medical records.

The report was filed on March 19, three days after the W.K. Kellogg Foundation gave Bell the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance 2009 Matusak Courageous Leadership Award “for his leading role in overhauling the juvenile court system in Orleans Parish.”