With multiple bills that target their authority looming in the Legislature, Louisiana Judiciary Commission officials announced Saturday that they are considering three changes to long-standing rules that require secrecy in investigations of judicial misconduct.
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Should the reforms be endorsed by the Louisiana Supreme Court, they would mark a significant move away from 50 years of near-total secrecy over Judiciary Commission cases, and the misconduct complaints that spawn them.
The proposed changes would increase public access to Judiciary Commission hearings and documents; limit how many private admonishments judges can rack up within a certain time frame; and provide more information about private actions the commission takes against judges. The Supreme Court is asking lawyers and judges to weigh in on the proposals before deciding whether to implement them.
“The proposed changes place the judiciary and the public’s interest in transparency in a fair and balanced position,” lawyer Ed Walters and Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal Judge John Molaison, the commission’s chair and vice chair, wrote in a statement.
The most sweeping proposal would allow the public to attend hearings once a judge is under investigation and a “notice of hearing” has been filed. The public would also be able to review filings, exhibits, testimony, hearing officer findings of fact and conclusions of law in those cases, while the result of the Judiciary Commission’s hearings and deliberations would be public as well.
The proposal is an extension of a rule change the Supreme Court announced in September, saying that people who filed complaints against judges could discuss them once the Judiciary Commission closed a file or set a hearing in a misconduct case. Several critics argued those rule changes did not go far enough.
The prospect of the public attending Judiciary Commission hearings still does not resolve concerns over the commission’s private handling of discipline in many cases. State Rep. Jerome Zeringue, a Houma Republican, has filed legislation that would make the commission go public with any action it takes to resolve judicial complaints.
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The Judiciary Commission’s proposed changes would limit judges to one private admonishment within a specified time period; any subsequent admonishment would become public. Judges, however, would still be able to receive an unlimited number of private cautions and warnings from the commission.
Though the commission sends cautions, warnings and admonishments to resolve complaints against judges, they do not consider such actions to constitute “discipline” — part of the commission’s rationale for keeping them private.
The Judiciary Commission’s third proposed rule change would require it to publish “more detailed information regarding the Commission’s private, nondisciplinary dispositions, without identifying the judge involved, but with a description of the type of infraction and the action taken by the Commission.” In other words, judicial discipline would be publicized in the aggregate, but the specifics would remain vague.
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Walters and Molaison largely defended the Judiciary Commission’s work in explaining the proposals. They also made clear their unwillingness to allowing full transparency around Judiciary Commission complaints, saying defendants on the losing end of a court battle might take out their anger through a judiciary complaint.
“Because many of these complaints are frivolous and are dismissed for not alleging misconduct, these complaints are confidential, just as complaints filed with the Board of Ethics are confidential,” they wrote. “Confidentiality protects the person who makes a complaint from retaliation or recrimination, the judge who is the subject of the complaint from frivolous complaints, and the public at large by ensuring integrity in the investigatory process.”
U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman ruled in 2014 that the Ethics Board’s rules barring people from discussing complaints they filed against public officials were unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.
The Louisiana Supreme Court announced September 6 that people who filed complaints about judges, judge respondents and witnesses to Judiciary …