416d16fe-7437-11e9-8b16-00163ec2aa77.jpg

2012 File photo of Jeff Hughes.

Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Jefferson Hughes III has filed a defamation lawsuit against the head of a legal watchdog group who criticized him in a letter to the editor last year that also called for the public to have more access to information about judges who have been investigated for wrongdoing.

This is the second defamation lawsuit that Hughes has recently filed related to The Advocate and The Times-Picayune’s 2019 stories that reported that both the FBI and Judiciary Commission had investigated Hughes in the early 2000s, and that he had written private apology letters to litigants in his courtroom. Hughes’ first defamation suit, filed in Iberville Parish, targets the newspaper directly.

His new suit focuses on a letter to the editor that The Advocate published from Lana Venable, the executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, a group that advocates for tort reform and that frequently attacks trial lawyers. Venable’s letter, published Sept. 4, 2019, said the lack of judicial transparency in Louisiana was among the factors that cemented the state’s reputation as having “one of the worst legal climates in the country.”

Hughes is suing Venable in her personal capacity, rather than the entity Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch. He filed the lawsuit in Baker City Court, which is in his Supreme Court district, and said in court filings that Venable’s letter caused him to suffer “embarrassment and damage to his reputation” in Baker.

In July, Hughes filed a similar suit against this newspaper over the wording of an editorial that referenced Hughes’ past romance with an attorney who was at one time enrolled in a child custody case he presided over.

In his two-page petition against Venable, Hughes argues that she defamed him with one sentence in her letter to the editor, which stated that “investigations began while he [Hughes] was still serving as a state judge in Livingston Parish through his election to the Supreme Court — twice.” The investigations into him, however, wrapped up “with no action taken” in 2004, he says in his court filings, citing as a source The Advocate’s reporting on those investigations.

The newspaper reported that Hughes’ attorney received a letter from the U.S. Attorney’s office dated May 25, 2004, advising him that they had closed their file on his case. Hughes was elected to the First Circuit Court of Appeal that fall, and the apology letters that he wrote to litigants were dated Dec. 1, 2004. In 2005 and 2006, the Louisiana Legislature authorized reimbursements for his legal fees related to the probe, helping him recoup nearly $100,000. Hughes was elected to the Supreme Court in 2012.

Hughes claims that Venable made her statement either knowing that it was false or showing reckless disregard for the truth. He is requesting “reasonable damages,” judicial interest and court costs.

There is only one judge in Baker City Court: Kirk Williams, meaning Hughes’ lawsuit will almost certainly be heard by him.

Hughes appears to be representing himself in the lawsuit against Venable; he signed the filing himself and there is no other attorney listed on the case. A copy of the check he used to pay the $250 filing fee is stamped “Jeff Hughes campaign fund.” In Hughes’ campaigns, he’s received hefty support from trial lawyers who are frequently criticized by Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch.

Venable and her attorney, David Bienvenu Jr., declined to comment about the lawsuit Wednesday. Bienvenu frequently defends oil and gas companies in lawsuits about asbestos, environmental damage and more. Hughes did not return a message for this story.


Email Andrea Gallo at agallo@theadvocate.com