As every student in grade-school civics should learn, courts are supposed to make sure that justice is served.
So there’s more than a little irony in the fact that a north Louisiana newspaper feels obligated, in the cause of justice, to battle the legal system itself to determine if justice is being dealt out fairly. It’s a case that should interest everyone in Louisiana, since the outcome could determine how accountable district courts throughout the state must be.
The Ouachita Citizen is in a legal dispute with the Fourth Judicial District Court in Monroe, which refuses to publicly release records the newspaper has requested about the conduct of a law clerk, Allison Campbell. Campbell was accused in a civil proceeding of destroying court documents and, through other means, delaying the work of the court. It appears that there has been more than one allegation that Campbell destroyed public records, and an investigation by the state Legislative Auditor’s Office found troubling irregularities in how the court’s employees are documenting their work hours. The audit concluded that some court employees may have been paid for unworked hours, a violation of state law.
This is troubling stuff, and the taxpayers who fund the court’s operations have a right to know what’s going on. That’s why The Ouachita Citizen, as part of its investigation, asked for a number of records concerning how Campbell is doing her job. The court, through its attorney, refused to comply, arguing that certain documents dealing with personnel matters can be exempt from public scrutiny. There are, indeed, legal provisions that exempt some kinds of personnel information from public view, but the court’s refusal of The Ouachita Citizen’s request seems like an abuse of these exemptions.
The Louisiana Supreme Court is expected to appoint an ad hoc judge to sort this out. We hope that the eventual ruling in this case acknowledges the need for public accountability and transparency. That should be the standard for the Fourth Judicial District Court and, indeed, for every court in Louisiana.