It took 15 years for a Louisiana Supreme Court justice’s admission of a troubling ethical lapse to see the light of day — but only a few weeks more for two remarkably similar mea culpas from Jefferson Hughes III to be revealed from his days as a Livingston Parish district judge.
Hughes sent one of those apology letters to the father in a child custody dispute he presided over in the late 1990s, and another to the man’s attorney. Their case played out in Hughes’ courtroom at the same time as another child welfare matter that also resulted in an apology from Hughes — a tug-of-war over a 5-year-old boy burned by scalding bathwater.
Hughes wrote a letter to that boy’s grandmother in 2004, after investigations into Hughes by the FBI and the state Judiciary Commission that this newspaper revealed publicly for the first time last month.
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The three letters Hughes wrote, each typed on his personal letterhead, may be the product of a negotiated resolution to multiple judicial complaints filed against him, though his letters sidestepped the specifics of any judicial sins. It’s unclear whether Hughes issued any other apologies during his 28 years as a judge.
In an interview Friday, Hughes declined to answer that question.
Hughes’ actions appear remarkably similar in the two child custody disputes that prompted complaints and apology letters, according to court records and participants in the cases.
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In both cases, Hughes went to bat for the mother and faced allegations of bias. In both, Hughes was accused of improperly discussing the case “ex parte,” meaning with one side only; of reopening custody matters of his own accord; and of doubling down on his authority to oversee the cases when challenged.
Hughes, 67, said Friday that he did not recall writing the newly revealed apology letters, saying he remembered only the letter the newspaper unearthed last month. He has declined to comment further.
The feds dropped their investigation into him in 2004, finding no federal crime with which to charge him. The Judiciary Commission’s work appears to have ended around the same time.
The same date topped all three apology letters: Dec. 1, 2004. The notes arrived shortly after voters elevated Hughes to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, but they would remain hidden through multiple campaigns as he went on to secure a position on the state’s highest court.
Hughes has not only survived public reprisal for his admitted “mistakes,” but risen.
The U.S. Department of Justice is not in the habit of sticking its nose in backroads Louisiana custody battles.
No ethical firewall?
David Fleming’s marriage was falling apart in 1997.
His wife had faced arrests for possession of hydrocodone and forging prescriptions. He hired private investigators to trail her and asked for temporary custody of his two sons, writing that his wife was “bringing my children around drug dealers, drug users and convicts.”
Early the next year, he moved with his sons to New Iberia. In court, they reached an accord that Hughes signed on March 11, 1998.
The boys would live with Fleming, but their mother, Mindi Loret, would have visitation “under conditions deemed reasonable by David Fleming.” That included one weekend a month in Denham Springs, another in New Iberia and phone calls three times a week.
A month later, the group shared Hughes’ courtroom with the family of Austin Nicholson, the 5-year-old boy who had been scalded in a trailer-home bathtub.
Fleming distinctly remembered Berkley Durbin as the attorney for Austin’s mother and stepfather, Marc Fuselier, who later pleaded no contest to cruelty to a juvenile, a charge brought following the boy’s injuries.
Durbin stood out for her ability to charm Hughes, Fleming recalled. He later found out the judge and Durbin were dating — a romance that spurred a flurry of accusations and investigations in the Nicholson case. Durbin has not returned messages for this story, and did not return messages for the previous story.
”I was sitting in court watching her work her magic in front of him and I was like, 'I want some of that,' ” remembered Fleming, now 56, and an automation engineer.
Court records show that Durbin stepped away from the Nicholson divorce and child custody case but continued to defend Fuselier in the related criminal case. Hughes stayed on the custody case and eventually dropped out of the criminal matters.
As a justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, Jeff Hughes is supposed to embody the highest standards of judicial conduct.
Legal ethicists have said there wasn’t nearly enough of an ethical firewall. They said the proper response from Hughes would have been the simplest: to step off both cases immediately.
To Fleming, Durbin seemed like the key to keeping his kids. He wrote in a later Judiciary Commission complaint that he tried to hire her, but that she turned him down because of a “conflict of interest” and that he later found out she was dating Hughes.
Hughes’ handling of the Nicholson case amid his involvement with Durbin would help spark the FBI investigation.
But while the Nicholson case was then only beginning, Fleming thought his case had reached its end in early 1998.
An unusual conference
His peace of mind did not last long.
“My ex would call and say, ‘Hey, I talked to Jeff last night,’” Fleming recalled, referring to Hughes. “If she’s sitting there talking to the judge ... of course I should be worried.”
Reached by phone, Loret denied she ever made such comments.
Five months after the custody agreement was signed, Hughes called Fleming’s attorney to discuss the case. Louisiana’s Code of Judicial Conduct says judges should limit such ex parte communications with attorneys to emergencies, scheduling or administrative issues. The attorney, Carolyn Ott, later testified about the call.
“Judge Hughes called me, and said generally that he was calling with respect to the Fleming case,” Ott said during her testimony. “And I asked him, ‘Why?’ And he said something to the effect that Mindi Fleming (Loret) said that she was not getting to see her children, and that he was concerned.”
Several months later, on March 1, 1999, Hughes sent an unusual letter to Ott and Loret, calling a status conference in his chambers. Fleming and his lawyer had thought the case was dead.
The discussion that day was not placed in the court record. But Ott later testified that Loret hurled accusations about Fleming’s parenting, including that he frequently traveled for work. Ott testified that she tried to call Fleming, her client, so he could respond to the accusations, but Hughes told her not to.
Hughes agreed that Loret could have unrestricted visitation when the children saw her in Denham Springs, according to Ott’s testimony. The change was not reflected in the court record, which this newspaper reviewed.
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But Ott wrote a letter to Fleming immediately afterward about the new visitation rules. She explained that Hughes said he called the meeting because Loret did not have a lawyer anymore. Loret’s previous attorney, Francis Touchet, was disbarred in 2000 after accusations that he sexually harassed clients and solicited sexual favors in lieu of legal fees. Loret was one of the clients who testified against Touchet, who is now dead.
Ott wrote in her letter that Hughes had advised Loret to hire a lawyer and file the necessary court papers to regain her children. But that wasn’t all.
Hughes instructed Ott to pass along a message: If Fleming was gone most of the time and Loret could pass drug screenings, there was no reason the boys should not live with their mother.
Shortly after, Loret’s new attorney, Charlotte Pugh, filed for joint custody on Loret’s behalf. She said the boys deserved equal time with both parents.
Fleming unsuccessfully tried to move the case to New Iberia. Then he and his attorney filed a motion to recuse Hughes from the case based on “what appears to be ex parte communication by ... Hughes with Mindi Fleming, and the indication by the court that it was considering a change of custody before any evidence was taken on the issue.”
'First time in 22 years'
Livingston District Judge Doug Hughes, who is not related to Jeff Hughes, oversaw the July 28, 1999, recusal hearing.
Jeff Hughes showed up with his own attorney, Jeffrey Nichols, who said he was there “just to prevent him from being recused,” according to the 109-page transcript. Nichols did not return messages for this story.
“Wait, wait, time out,” said Mary Heck Barrios, Fleming’s new attorney. She argued Jeff Hughes wasn’t legally a party in the case, and Judge Doug Hughes agreed.
But before the hearing could go on, Jeff Hughes asked for a recess to talk to Pugh, Loret’s new attorney. Pugh then agreed to allow Jeff Hughes’ lawyer to join Loret’s legal team.
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Loret testified that she had left multiple messages at Jeff Hughes’ office asking him what to do because her attorney was being disbarred.
Jeff Hughes called back and said he could not give her legal advice, but recommended she hire a lawyer and said he’d set up a status conference, according to Loret’s testimony. Loret told this newspaper that Jeff Hughes had never returned her messages.
Loret’s previous attorney, Touchet, also testified at the recusal hearing about ex parte conversations between Jeff Hughes and his former client. He said “Judge Jeff” once asked him why he stopped representing Loret, who called the judge by his first name.
“Mindi Fleming told me, ‘I have talked to Jeff Hughes, and he needs to know what’s going on so that he can help me get my kids back,’” Touchet testified.
Ott went from being Fleming’s lawyer to a witness at the hearing. She said Jeff Hughes indicated at a bench conference that he had “no reason to recuse himself.” Ott testified that she was baffled by Jeff Hughes’ request for a status conference when there were no motions pending.
“I’ve practiced law for almost 22 years, and this is the first time in 22 years it’s ever happened,” Ott told the court. “So, I’d say, it was pretty odd.”
Barrios, Fleming’s new attorney, echoed that in her closing arguments: In 20 years of practicing law, she said she had never been summoned to a status conference when nothing had been filed. Barrios did not return messages for this story.
When Jeff Hughes took the stand, Barrios asked if he scheduled other status conferences when “there was nothing pending.” He said he’d scheduled several, and that he did not remember modifying the custody arrangement at the Fleming status conference.
Pugh asked the judge if he remembered the call about Loret not seeing her children. He confirmed that he remembered calling Ott.
“I think that was maybe her complaint,” Jeff Hughes said. “I don’t recall that, but that wouldn’t be, that could be possible if that’s what her complaint was.”
Despite the hoopla, Jeff Hughes said he had no more interest in the Fleming case than any other, and that nothing about it would affect his ability to perform his duties as a judge.
At the end of her questioning, Barrios asked Jeff Hughes if he was familiar with the Code of Judicial Conduct.
“Vaguely,” he said.
She asked if he knew Canon 3C.
“Not specifically,” he said.
Barrios recited that Canon 3C said “a judge should disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”
“If that’s what it says, yes,” Jeff Hughes said. “I mean, I don’t know the number or whatever. I’m familiar that that’s in there.”
What went unmentioned at the hearing: Three months earlier, Jeff Hughes had also been asked to recuse himself from the Nicholson case. That time, there was no second opinion. Hughes ruled on the recusal motion himself, and said no.
'He does have an interest'
Immediately after the unusual hearing, Judge Doug Hughes yanked his colleague off the Fleming case, wagging his finger a bit in the process.
“I have a problem with anyone’s impartiality when they hire an attorney and bring that attorney in on their behalf, when they’re not involved in the case,” Doug Hughes told the courtroom.
He also said the powwow with Jeff Hughes, his attorney and Pugh before the recusal hearing was troubling. In an emailed response to this story, Pugh defended Jeff Hughes, but said she could not recall particulars of the recusal.
“I did have a major custody case in front of him while he and Berkley (Durbin) were dating, and Berkley was on the other side,” Pugh wrote in an email. “He did not disclose their relationship to me. Judge Hughes actually awarded my client custody, and ruled against Berkley’s client ... He always seemed to do what was right for the families, no matter what the influence.”
But Judge Doug Hughes, who did not return messages for this story, saw it differently when he ordered Hughes recused from the Fleming case, according to the transcript.
“Just because his heart’s in the right place doesn’t mean, and in fact in this case, to me shows, that he does have an interest and does not mean that he’s disinterested,” Doug Hughes said.
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Fleming’s triumph was short-lived.
He received a notice the next month saying Jeff Hughes was appealing the decision to recuse him from the case. Fleming said it forced him to have an epiphany: Jeff Hughes, rather than his ex-wife, was now his opponent.
The 1st Circuit denied the writ. Hughes took it to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Judge Doug Hughes took over the custody case and awarded Fleming sole custody of his sons early in 2000. Loret would have supervised visitation every other weekend.
Loret, who now lives in Texas, said the ruling devastated her. She described Jeff Hughes as a stand-up man who never should have been kicked off her case.
Years afterward, she recalled seeing him at the Livingston Parish courthouse while she was paying a ticket. She reminded him who she was.
“He made the comment to me that I got a very raw deal,” Loret said. “I don’t remember his exact words, but he made it clear to me that I should have gotten custody of my children and if it (had) stayed in his courtroom, I would have gotten custody.”
Fleming, however, saw the ruling as vindication.
“He put me through hell,” Fleming said of Jeff Hughes. “I was physically ill, having to deal with him. No telling what would have happened if he would have given them to her. That was not gonna happen.”
All seven Supreme Court justices voted to deny Hughes’ writ application on March 17, 2000 — 13 years before Jeff Hughes joined their ranks. Doug Hughes signed the custody judgment the next month.
'I am deeply sorry'
One thread was still hanging. Shortly after Jeff Hughes filed his first writ, Fleming typed a three-page complaint to the Judiciary Commission.
“He’s running roughshod over people,” Fleming said. “This guy, somebody should have stopped him a long time ago, the things he does.”
Fleming received a response shortly afterward, saying that his complaint was assigned “file no. 99-1737.” The letter advised him that “all documents filed with and evidence and proceedings before the Judiciary Commission are confidential.”
The public court file from Fleming’s custody case also includes a Judiciary Commission letter dated April 28, 2000, with a subpoena for the Livingston Parish clerk of court to turn over the complete file of Fleming’s custody case.
Fleming said he got the distinct impression the commission had juicier allegations against Hughes.
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“They were telling me over and over again, ‘Hey, we got this guy,’” Fleming said. “They wouldn’t give me any details when we discussed the case whatsoever, but basically, ‘yeah, we got him, it’s just a matter of time’ kind of thing. I supposedly was just one of many that had complained against him.”
Fleming received eight letters from the commission over five years. Some included subpoenas to testify at hearings that were later canceled. It was later revealed that the feds were investigating Hughes over the Nicholson case during the same timeframe.
It’s unclear what effect that had on the Judiciary Commission investigation and what steps the secretive body took regarding Hughes.
But what is clear is that Hughes was never subjected to public judicial discipline, which would have been issued by the state Supreme Court. The commission can privately “admonish” or “caution” judges.
Fleming’s final letter from the commission came March 25, 2004, when it advised him it was postponing another hearing. He received his next letter nine months later, directly from Hughes.
“I am writing to apologize to you for any inconvenience, aggravation, extra work, or costs caused to you by my actions,” Hughes wrote in a one-paragraph message. “I made mistakes in the way I handled the case of Fleming v. Fleming and for this I am deeply sorry.”
Fleming wondered who ordered Hughes to write the letter, which he said he viewed as insincere.
Ott confirmed that she also received a letter from Hughes around the same time. Like Fleming’s, it was one paragraph long and did not specify Hughes’ offense.
“I hope that your future contacts with the justice system will lead to the truth in a more efficient manner,” Hughes wrote in his letter to Fleming. “I deeply regret the way the case was handled and I can assure you I will do my utmost to avoid this type of situation in the future.”
Nearly 100 miles to Fleming’s east, Austin Nicholson’s grandmother received a similarly vague letter. Fleming reached out to this newspaper after he read its recent coverage of the long-secret apology letter Hughes wrote in the Nicholson case.
Some warned Fleming against telling his story, given Hughes’ powerful post.
But circumstances have changed.
“My boys are grown,” Fleming said. “He can’t hurt me now.”