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2012 File photo of Jeff Hughs.

As a justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, Jeff Hughes is supposed to embody the highest standards of judicial conduct.

He failed that standard miserably two decades ago when he presided over a controversial custody case while he was, according to several people, romantically involved with one of its lawyers. 

His behavior, brought to light this week by an Advocate investigation of the long-ago legal battle, should alarm voters who have elected him to the state’s highest court. Maybe they would have made another decision if they had known of Hughes’ sordid conduct, which attracted the attention of the FBI when he was a state judge in Livingston Parish.

The fact that citizens generally didn’t know about it is an even bigger scandal. It points to a pervasive lack of transparency in Louisiana’s judicial system — a problem that hampers accountability and compromises confidence in how justice is carried out.

Some of the details of the custody dispute are mentioned in an unrelated court case. That information, along with other documents The Advocate located, form the basis of what we know. Some documents were suspiciously missing from the official record. And, since the records of the state’s Judiciary Commission, which disciplines judges for bad behavior, aren’t routinely made public, we don’t know what, if anything, was done to address Hughes’ clearly unethical behavior.

The facts that have made it into the light of day read like a horror story. In 1999, while on the state bench in Livingston, Hughes was romantically involved with lawyer Berkley Durbin, according to several people familiar with the situation. Even so, he didn’t recuse himself from a custody case and related legal matters involving a five-year-old boy named Austin Nicholson. Durbin represented Austin’s mother, who was fighting for custody even though her boyfriend, who would become her husband, had been accused of scalding Austin in a tub of hot water.

Hughes refused to recuse himself and ruled in favor of Austin’s mother, though child welfare officials strenuously objected. The case was eventually turned over to another judge, and in 2004, Hughes wrote a note to the boy’s grandmother in which he appeared to apologize for his conduct, saying it was “inimical to the pursuit of the truth and that, because of my actions, justice suffered. For this, I am deeply remorseful.”

If Hughes were truly remorseful, he’d speak publicly about the case, which prompted an FBI probe that ultimately did not produce any charges against him.

Sadly, without basic transparency, the public doesn’t know how many other abuses have occurred in Louisiana’s judiciary and what was done about them.

State lawmakers had a chance last session to approve a bill making the records of the judiciary commission public. They balked, no doubt because many legislators are lawyers who are friends of judges or aspire to the bench themselves.

Austin Nicholson, now grown, survived his ordeal and now lives out of state. But Jeff Hughes failed him, and the system did, too. Until more light is shed on the Louisiana judiciary’s dirty dealings, we can expect more victims like Nicholson in the future.