Attorney Richard Ducote opened a new front in his war against the secrecy surrounding Louisiana judicial misconduct investigations by filing a federal lawsuit against the state’s Judiciary Commission.

Ducote’s lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the Eastern District of Louisiana, is based on letters that both he and a plaintiff named Austin Leiser received from the Judiciary Commission in the past month that bar them from revealing they filed complaints against judges. The lawsuit asks the federal courts to rule that the Louisiana Supreme Court’s rules governing the secrecy of complaints against judges are “invalid, unenforceable and unconstitutional.” 

The suit also asks the federal courts to issue a preliminary injunction that would prevent the state’s Judiciary Commission from starting proceedings against Ducote or Leiser for revealing that they filed complaints against judges. When people file complaints with the Judiciary Commission, they receive a letter warning them that they are forbidden from disclosing their complaints and often emphasizing that “violations of the confidentiality rule will be taken very seriously.”’

As this newspaper recently reported, less than 1% of complaints filed with the Judiciary Commission over the past five years reached the threshold to become public.

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Richard Ducote, photo provided

The Supreme Court adopted a rule change in September after a series of stories that shed light on the secretive judicial discipline process, and now allows complainants to discuss Judiciary Commission proceedings only after they’ve been adjudicated. The Judiciary Commission can still privately issue cautions, admonishments and warnings to judges that forever stay hidden from the public, and still advises people who file complaints that all documents are confidential.

“This is the next step in opening up the problems with the Judiciary Commission,” Ducote said Wednesday after filing the suit. “We just want to make sure that, in conjunction with this declaratory judgment, the federal court puts the brakes on any sort of retaliation from the Judiciary Commission for the exercise of those free speech rights.”

This is the second time that Ducote, a Covington-based lawyer who ran for the Supreme Court in the general election, has filed a lawsuit on the issue. In August, he filed suit in Baton Rouge district court aiming to have the state law that regulates the Judiciary Commission deemed unconstitutional. In that lawsuit, Ducote argues that the Supreme Court holds the ultimate authority over the Judiciary Commission, rather than the legislature.

A Supreme Court spokesman declined to comment on both lawsuits, citing a policy that the state’s high court does not comment on pending litigation.

In the new federal lawsuit, Ducote writes that he received a Nov. 5 letter from the Judiciary Commission advising him that he could not disclose a recent complaint he filed against a judge. Ducote previously told The Advocate and The Times-Picayune Nov. 1 that he was filing a complaint against Supreme Court Justice Jefferson Hughes over a former Hammond city councilman’s sworn affidavit that said Hughes paid him a house visit and offered him $5,000 to switch his allegiance in the Supreme Court race.

Ducote said Wednesday that he could not confirm or deny whether the Nov. 5 letter from the Judiciary Commission telling him not to discuss the inquiry was in response to his Hughes complaint.

Leiser also filed a Judiciary Commission complaint Oct. 21, “as a result of her involvement as a litigant in her own child custody litigation,” according to the lawsuit. She received a letter shortly afterward telling her that she was forbidden from discussing her complaint or the proceedings.

The lawsuit argues that the prohibition on discussing Judiciary Commission complaints and investigations violates both the First Amendment to free speech and the Fourteenth Amendment to equal protection under the law.

The secrecy of judiciary complaints has been at the forefront of the race for a seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court between appeals court judges Will Crain and Hans Liljeberg. Ducote did not advance to the runoff. Both Crain, of the 1st circuit, and Liljeberg, of the 5th circuit, have embraced opening up records on judicial discipline.

Crain this week spoke publicly about a Judiciary Commission complaint that GOP operative Scott Wilfong — who is running a PAC that supports Liljeberg — filed against him. Both Crain and Wilfong said they believed they had the right to openly discuss the complaint, which is over a posed photo of Crain and other Republicans under an “Eddie Rispone for Governor” banner, even though Judiciary Commission rules technically prevent them from even revealing that the complaint exists.

Crain said the complaint was purely politically motivated, and that he did nothing to violate judicial canons. He said he should have the right to publicly discuss allegations against him because the confidentiality of judiciary commission proceedings are meant to benefit the judge who is accused. Wilfong also said he had the First Amendment right to political speech, and that the Judiciary Commission should not be able to prevent him from discussing the conduct of people running for judicial elections.

Email Andrea Gallo at agallo@theadvocate.com