The justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court can hardly preen themselves over their toughness.
The newest, light sanction to Justice Jeff Hughes, often acting at odds with the level of ethics we want to see in a judge, is something else he will shrug off.
The high court voted 4-1 for the Hughes sanction based on a credible report of a crass bit of politicking unusual even in Louisiana’s system of an elected judiciary.
In a hotly contested 2019 campaign for a seat on the court next to Hughes’ Baton Rouge-based district, the justice met and offered $5,000 to a former Hammond city council member, Johnny Blount. Blount was supporting Judge William Crain in the run for the open seat, which Crain later won.
Blount told The Times-Picayune | The Advocate that Hughes offered the money to persuade him to switch his support to Crain’s opponent. Hughes denied the money was a payoff but acknowledged telling Blount that it might be more financially rewarding to back Liljeberg.
The justices called Blount's account “unsubstantiated,” as if the politicking of ethically pristine members of the judiciary is expected to be in writing, or on a billboard.
Hughes did not contest, though, the court’s finding that “this discussion left Mr. Blount with the impression that respondent was attempting to change Mr. Blount’s support from Judge Crain to Judge (Hans) Liljeberg.”
Hughes’ troubled history of favoritism to friends and connections suggest to us that the allegation of a payoff had more merit than the justices' slap on the wrist might lead voters to believe. Hughes is freer to meddle in politics because he is no longer eligible, because of a mandatory age limit, to run for another term.
Hughes and Crain both were recused from the court's proceedings over the Blount meeting. The five other members of the court split 4-1 on the ruling to censure Hughes. Chief Justice John Weimer dissented on a process question, saying the court should have held a public hearing on the case.
The court ruling said the case against Hughes was mitigated by several factors: Justices believed he didn't engage in a pattern of misconduct; the conduct didn't occur in a courtroom; he was not acting in his official capacity; and he cooperated fully in the judiciary commission's probe.
But the ruling said Hughes violated multiple judicial canons, including a prohibition on partisan political activity, noting that his conduct “and subsequent events flowing from it ... brought the judiciary into disrepute.”
That it did. Censuring Hughes and ordering him to pay $2,000 to cover the cost of the investigation is hardly a severe punishment.
Hughes, a former state district judge in Livingston Parish, was elected to the Supreme Court in 2012. He was reelected six years later. Over several years, cases of Hughes favoring defendants or lawyers with whom he had connections came to light; he apologized to those affected privately, well after the fact, in some cases.
The cynical might say that elected judges must indulge in politics, but as the court indicated, rules do prohibit judicial candidates from acting like scuffling police jurors.
With money often flowing to judicial candidates from either big businesses or from the trial lawyers often at odds with them, it’s all the more important that the public should know there are limits on how beholden to campaign donors and supporters a supposedly impartial judge is.
We’re not surprised that Hughes was found to have stretched the limits of propriety. But we’re disappointed that the court isn’t effectively policing its own.