The state Supreme Court, with a long history of protecting misbehaving judges instead of guarding the public, seems to finally be feeling the heat.
Before the coronavirus crisis sent them home, legislators were gearing up to force the court to open up its secret process for disciplining judges.
One productive idea is a constitutional amendment from state Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, a Houma Republican, that would give the Legislature, rather than the court, power over confidentiality rules for the Judiciary Commission, which handles discipline cases.
Last week, the court offered a menu of reforms, some of which move in the right direction. But the measures were tepid, and the court does not seem to appreciate how much reform voters expect if confidence in our justice system is to be restored.
That confidence was shaken by reports last year that one of the justices, Jefferson Hughes III, was the subject of a secret five-year probe into allegations that he issued biased rulings while a district judge in Livingston Parish, in one case favoring the client of an attorney he was dating. The court swept the whole mess under the rug and Hughes wrote secret apology letters to three litigants. Voters later elevated him to the high court, without ever knowing.
The Supreme Court’s proposed reforms offer at least one sound idea: The public will now be able to attend hearings against judges accused of misconduct, a major change to a secretive process.
Under the new rules, judicial misconduct investigations will become public once the Judiciary Commission schedules a hearing against a judge and the judge has had the chance to file a response.
But the Supreme Court could have gone further, and it should have.
The Judiciary Commission will continue to privately dole out chastisements for judges in the form of reminders, cautions and admonishments.
Would you want your case adjudicated by a judge who received a secret admonishment? The Supreme Court seems to think you wouldn’t mind.
The Supreme Court also offered no change in its rule that bars people who file complaints against judges from discussing their grievances until a "notice of hearing" has been filed in an investigation, or once a file has been closed.
The gag order is probably unconstitutional, since the First Amendment protects the rights of Americans to complain about their politicians, or anyone else. When litigants file a complaint against a judge, the Judiciary Commission sends them an intimidating letter. But there have been no indications that the commission and the court are enforcing the gag rule and one lawyer is suing them over it anyhow.
The coronavirus crisis won’t be with us forever. The public is losing patience, and the justices missed a chance to rebuild the reputation of Louisiana’s court system, before legislators and voters take the matter out of their hands.