Caustic comments about campaign financing dominated a debate Thursday between two circuit judges contending in the Dec. 8 runoff for the District 5 seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Judge Jeff Hughes, a Republican from Walker, spent $259,915 on the Nov. 6 primary election campaign. But Hughes also benefited from $468,701 an independent political action committee spent on television commercials and other advertisements and support that helped Hughes to a second-place finish in the primary.
Judge John Michael Guidry, a Democrat from Baton Rouge, had no television advertising, but finished first on a budget of $175,477.
“No one has put half-a-million dollars into my campaign to buy TV ads,” Guidry said during the debate hosted by the League of Women Voters of Baton Rouge at Drusilla Seafood Restaurant.
“No interest group has put money into my campaign,” Hughes shot back. Hughes added he neither solicited support from Citizens for Clean Water and Land PAC nor controlled how that political action committee spent its money.
Guidry said he doesn’t believe a judge who accepts more than $500,000 from contributors “is an ethical judge.”
By law, however, such political action committees are not formed or controlled by any candidate.
Hughes also said repeatedly that his judicial decisions are never influenced by contributors.
League President Jean Armstrong asked both candidates whether they would recuse themselves if a case involving a large campaign contributor came before them.
“No,” Hughes replied, adding that he usually does not know who is included among his campaign contributors.
As for the Clean Water and Land committee or any other such groups, Hughes repeated: “I don’t ask for their support. I don’t control such support.”
“If you didn’t want them to pay for your commercials, maybe you should have told them to stop,” Guidry told Hughes.
Guidry said he strives not to become involved in situations that could require his recusal from a court case, but noted the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that in those cases with a perceived lack of impartiality “failure to recuse creates a violation of due process.”
Armstrong called attention to primary election campaigns in which a judicial candidate describes himself or herself as pro-life, pro-gun and pro-traditional-marriage.
“I do not consider those hot-button issues,” said Hughes, who described himself in that manner during the primary campaign. Hughes also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a decade ago that judges who face election are permitted to publicly express their opinions on such subjects.
If those aren’t hot-button issues, why are they a big part of the District 5 race? Guidry asked. He noted that a canon of the Louisiana Supreme Court continues to discourage judges from expressing their opinions.
Armstrong noted that Louisiana’s executive and legislative branches of government have forced layoffs and other cutbacks among government employees. She asked both candidates what they will do if disputes over those actions find their way to the state’s highest court.
“You do what’s right,” said Hughes, who has the endorsement of Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Guidry said: “I am going to be a justice of the Supreme Court who rules without fear or favor. We have to have a free and independent judiciary.”
Louisiana voters recently strengthened the right of residents to own and carry firearms, Armstrong said. She asked whether the latest law erodes police authority.
“No,” said Hughes. “It does not affect current law.”
Guidry predicted that the Louisiana Supreme Court will someday face such issues in an appellate case. He added that both he and Hughes renew concealed-weapon permits each year. Guidry then said, however, that he will never appear in television commercials holding a gun, as Hughes has done.
In that commercial, Hughes was dressed as a hunter and held a shotgun.
Armstrong asked both candidates whether they believe the U.S. Constitution is an evolving document. If not, she asked, do the candidates consider themselves strict constructionists?
Guidry’s response was terse: “Any matter that comes before the court, I will apply the Constitution and laws to the best of my ability.”
Hughes defined himself as a strict constructionist, but then said: “The Constitution must have some flexibility.”
Over the course of more than 200 years, “times change,” Hughes added. “The law is what the law is, but we must be flexible.”
Armstrong asked whether laws requiring judges to disclose their financial assets and liabilities are a good thing.
“I believe it’s a healthy thing,” Hughes replied.
“I think it’s important that people can follow the money,” Guidry said.
Armstrong noted that taxpayers pay millions of dollars each year for public defenders and state prosecutors to argue over appeals in death penalty cases.
“Is the death penalty worth the cost?” Armstrong asked.
“You can’t put a cost on justice,” Guidry answered. “The death penalty is the law of the land.”
Guidry added: “We need to make sure we do it right.”
Hughes, who publicly has said he favors the death penalty, said it is important for trial court judges to get death penalty cases right the first time so that appellate courts do not have to send cases back to district courts for second trials.
The runoff election will be decided by voters in East and West Baton Rouge, East and West Feliciana, Livingston, Ascension, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes.