A state body that tries to ensure judicial campaigns don’t become overly politicized has found that a candidate for the bench in St. Tammany Parish violated the Code of Judicial Conduct through postings on her campaign and personal Facebook pages that could affect the outcome or impair the fairness of matters pending in court.
The Louisiana Judicial Campaign Oversight Committee was responding to two separate complaints filed against Nanine McCool, who is running for the Division L seat of 22nd Judicial District Court.
One of the complaints was filed by a party to a pending domestic case and the other by incumbent Dawn Amacker, whom McCool is challenging for the family court division seat in the Nov. 4 election.
McCool said the decision has “huge First Amendment implications” and that the statements she made were factual in nature.
The committee found that McCool’s conduct violates Canon 7(A) of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which prohibits a judge or judicial candidate from making “any statement that would reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of a matter pending in any Louisiana state court.”
The first complaint, filed by a litigant in a domestic case, concerned an exchange with McCool on her campaign’s Facebook page. The litigant mentioned a recommendation of attorney discipline against McCool, and while the committee said McCool was allowed to defend herself, her response “went beyond a mere defense.”
McCool posted that her critic would “prefer to see Amacker remain on the bench since Amacker would allow him to have unsupervised visits with his own daughter, in spite of the evidence.”
The committee said such a direct comment could reasonably be expected to impair the fairness of the case by “inflaming public opinion against a party in a pending matter” and could influence parties and witnesses in the case.
McCool said the person who posted the comments said, inaccurately, that the Office of Disciplinary Counsel had recommended that she be disbarred. That office actually recommended that she be suspended for a year and a day for taking to the Internet to discuss a 2011 custody case.
The Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board held a hearing on that matter Sept. 4.
The other complaint, filed by Amacker, dealt with McCool’s posting on her personal Facebook page concerning a custody case now pending in 22nd Judicial District Court.
“Although the parties to the case are not named, McCool gives enough detail about the case that those in the community, and certainly anyone involved with the case, is likely to identify it,” the committee said.
The postings discuss the merits of the case extensively and specifically, the committee said. It also pointed to a May 19 posting by McCool thanking everyone who had posted previously on the matter and encouraging them “to keep speaking out, sharing this and getting people involved in the discussion.” The committee said that statement encouraged readers to comment on pending litigation, which could be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of a matter pending in court.
McCool defended her Facebook postings on Tuesday. “I don’t understand how my comment, which was entirely factual, is prejudicial to the administration of justice,” she said in an interview. “I don’t understand how the truth can ever be prejudicial to the administration of justice.”
Lawyers have an obligation to speak out “against what we perceive as injustice,” she said.
McCool, who has said previously that efforts to discipline her stem from her criticism of Amacker, said she hopes the Campaign Oversight Committee’s decision will not hurt her in the race. “I hope people will be more appalled at the idea that speaking truth is something the legal system wants to discourage,” she said.
Amacker commented on the decision in a prepared statement.
“I am grateful for the time and attention given to this serious matter by the members of the committee. It is my sincere hope that their findings result in Ms. McCool’s future compliance with the Code of Judicial Conduct,” she said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.