In Louisiana, we elect our judges.
All too often, though, the voters are flying blind. A judicial candidate, or a sitting judge seeking reelection, might be under investigation because of alleged wrongdoing. But the voters will never be told about the charges.
Even if there is credible evidence of misconduct, the issues might never come to public view.
The Judiciary Commission, a committee under the authority of the Louisiana Supreme Court, cloaks in secrecy even the discussion of judicial conduct. And when troubling evidence is found of misconduct leading to a public recommendation of judicial discipline, the high court often fails to act, or reduces the penalty recommended by the commission.
How can voters cast an informed ballot about a judge under investigation if the simple fact of the probe is secret?
The scandal dubbed “Operation Wrinkled Robe” in state district court in Jefferson Parish led to a judge, Joan Benge, being removed by the high court in 2009. It was the only time in a decade that the court acted, perhaps given the high degree of publicity involving the federal investigation.
And Benge was twice reelected in the years that the "wrinkled robes" were under review by federal authorities, before the Judiciary Commission and the Supreme Court acted. The voters did not know the facts of the case.
Hundreds of misconduct investigations are opened by the Judiciary Commission; this is probably not unusual, given that aggrieved lawyers or members of the public might be filing complaints if they feel mistreated in a judge’s courtroom.
Some review process is obviously necessary, but many judges over the last decade have benefited from today’s insular system that hides their alleged misconduct from public view in all but the rarest cases. Misbehaving judges might receive letters of caution, admonishments or other warnings, but they are buried in secret Judiciary Commission files, where litigants in their courtroom and the voting public will never see them.
Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University law professor who frequently represents judges under Judiciary Commission investigation, said confidentiality might be warranted in cases when judges are seeking treatment for alcohol and substance abuse problems. But otherwise, ''these are public officials,'' he said. ''The more done in the sunshine, the better.''
More than that, these are elected officials. Even in cases where medical impairment is involved, voters deserve the insight into their choices that are today kept tightly under wraps.
Judges might be maligned by the complaints, but we think that most voters are intelligent enough to discern when a criticism has merit and when it does not.
Some reform of the system is needed to meet the standards of openness that are necessary to allow the ballot box, as well as the judicial system, to operate as it should.