Some people say the observation deck is the most popular attraction at the State Capitol.
Maybe, but the most crowded is the hallway where Huey Long was gunned down in September 1935 by a constituent angry, if the official story is to be believed, about the Kingfish’s meddling with a state district judge in Opelousas.
A public official attacked in a public place for acts he did as a public official. “And he was surrounded by bodyguards too,” said Judge Jules D. Edwards III, president of the Louisiana District Judges Association and who holds court in Lafayette.
Edwards pointed at that defining moment in Louisiana history to underscore his argument that judges should be exempt from the transparency required of nearly every other elected official in the state.
Judges, like state and local government officials, do have to list who they owe, who pays them and where they’ve invested.
Those personal financial disclosures are free and instantly available to anyone on the Ethics Board website, but because judges are a separate branch of government, they have their own ethics system. Copies of their reports are available through the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Under pressure from the legislators and businessmen, the high court agreed to consider over the summer whether to post the personal financial disclosures online. The justices will make a decision at their fall conference.
“This is not a complicated issue that requires a whole lot of study,” said Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch. “They have been asked to provide the same basic financial disclosure information that exists for literally every other elected official in the state and to post that information online where the public can easily access it. What could be more simple and straightforward than that?”
But it’s not that simple, Edwards says on behalf of the roughly 400 state-level judges in Louisiana.
The threat that some emotionally raw decision they make could erupt into sudden violence hovers over judges. “How many legislators make decisions that send people to prison right now? Or make decisions that your children will not sleep in your house tonight?” he asked.
With smartphones in widespread use, people enraged by a judge’s decision can find the address of a spouse’s employer and the judge’s home as they walk down the courthouse stairs, he says.
“What is so vital about this information that it has to be instantaneously obtained,” Edwards asks, “when it poses the risk that a judge can be killed, a judge’s family can be killed?”
Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Greg Guidry testified before legislators in May that judges want to know who is asking to see their personal financial disclosures. They need to be forewarned, he said.
Guidry and Edwards have not been threatened personally. And Edwards can’t recall the specifics of any other judge he knows who has been threatened. But he’s heard the stories. Apparently, attacks and the possibility of violence is a mainstay of conversation when judges get together.
The Louisiana State Police report cites only occasional investigations. A few quick checks around the state found no prosecutions for judicial threats or attacks.
Asked for details, judges usually point to a 2009 U.S. Marshals Service report that showed threats against federal judges and federal prosecutors nationwide jumped from 500 in 2003 to 1,278 in 2008.
A little more immediately, 18th Judicial District Court Judge James J. Best, of New Roads, complained in April about inadequate security after fighting broke out in the halls of the Pointe Coupee Parish Courthouse between the family of an accused murderer and the victims’ family. “While I do not know the answer, nor do I suggest fault, I do know that security, more than ever, is a most serious matter that must be addressed,” Best wrote April 9.
While the threat of violence is a reasonable concern, said Emily Shaw, an open-government advocate, what’s more frequent is government trying to bog down the process with all sorts of excuses.
Publicly disclosing financial arrangements and obligations allows people to see for themselves and builds confidence in the decisions that a government official makes, says the deputy policy director of The Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based group.
“Any release of information carries risks. But the potential benefit of having a broader array of people reviewing the information outweighs the risks,” Shaw said. “Generally speaking, we expect our government’s information to be online, to be available.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is email@example.com, and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.