When Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Jeff Hughes was a district judge in Livingston Parish two decades ago, his handling of a child custody case came under fire after a grandmother claimed Hughes was biased because he dated a lawyer who participated in the matter.
Because of his actions in the case, Hughes was the subject of a five-year federal probe. The state’s Judiciary Commission, which is supposed to police judges, took an interest in Hughes’ conduct, too. The feds brought no charges against Hughes, and what the Judiciary Commission precisely determined is anybody’s guess. Its proceedings are largely shielded from view, which conveniently protects judges from public accountability.
But the public did end up on the hook for most of Hughes’ legal bills connected to the probes, with state taxpayers ponying up nearly $100,000 to help pay the judge’s high-priced legal team.
And that sad reality, recently uncovered by a team of Advocate reporters, points to what’s wrong with the current system of oversight for Louisiana’s judges. Citizens are kept mostly in the dark about how judges are disciplined, though we’re the ones who pay the costs, in a variety of ways, when all is said and done.
Louisiana lawmakers approved the payout for Hughes’ legal bills, but the legislator advancing the measure at the time, then-state Rep. Dale Erdey of Livingston, now says he was unaware that Hughes had sent at least three letters of apology to various parties, possibly at the prompting of the Judiciary Commission, in connection with his behavior on the bench.
Those letters, obtained by The Advocate, seem strategically vague. “Because of my actions, justice suffered,” the judge admitted in one letter, though the judge didn’t specify what actions he regretted.
Apologies, of course, are meant to acknowledge mistakes so that they won’t be repeated. But if we have no clear idea what Hughes was admitting in his mea culpas, one must wonder if they’re acts of contrition or exercises in cynicism.
Even so, lawmakers who forked over thousands in public money to pay Hughes’ lawyers might have been interested to know why the judge was possibly directed by an oversight board to apologize for his conduct.
That could also have been useful information for voters to know before they elected Hughes to the highest state court in Louisiana.
Obviously, the current system for policing judges is broken. Voters should ask the current crop of gubernatorial and legislative candidates how they intend to fix it. Throwing some sunshine on the process would be a good first step.