Louisiana’s Supreme Court contends that it is an independent branch of government, so it can set its own rules for ethics enforcement and disclosure.
But thanks to the court’s long-standing mismanagement of the process — its penchant for secrecy and its lax treatment of misbehaving judges — voters have lost confidence and now the Legislature is threatening to get involved.
The court and its Judiciary Commission, which weighs complaints against judges, seem to have suddenly found their zeal for reform and openness, offering a series of proposals just as the Legislature is getting ready to gig them. Voters should be skeptical of the court.
The high court has become a battleground in the war between business interests and trial lawyers, especially one firm, Talbot Carmouche & Marcello, of Baton Rouge, which has brought a series of high-profile suits against oil and gas companies. One Supreme Court judge, Jefferson Hughes III, of Livingston Parish, has been kicked off cases by his colleagues because he was too enthusiastically supported by Talbot Carmouche. Another, Will Crain, of St. Tammany Parish, has been kicked off cases for being too hostile to Talbot Carmouche.
Hughes is Exhibit A for the damage done by the Judiciary Commission’s secrecy. He was investigated for five years over biased decisions in Livingston Parish, and the whole affair was kept secret and apparently ended when he wrote three letters apologizing to litigants in his courtroom. Baton Rouge area voters never knew all that as they promoted Hughes to the high court. He was generously supported by Talbot Carmouche but convinced voters that his calling card was his fierce opposition to same-sex marriage.
Two legislators have filed bills to end the secret disciplinary proceedings and to remove the gag order imposed on citizens who file complaints. Another more radical measure would end Louisiana’s long-standing practice of electing judges.
The Judiciary Commission has responded with a plan to let the public attend hearings once a judge is under investigation and review documents related to the case.
That’s a step in the right direction.
Another Judiciary Commission proposal would limit judges to one private admonishment within a specified time period. This idea falls short. Taxpayers, and litigants, might be more impressed if the commission proposed making all admonishments public.
The judges’ claim that they should be allowed to police themselves is rooted in the separation of powers.
But the judges’ salaries and generous pensions are set by the Legislature, and we haven’t heard them complaining about the separation of powers when lawmakers hand out raises.
Perhaps the lawmakers should stop approving the raises until the judges admit that the separation of powers does not bar the Legislature from regulating discipline and public disclosure.