After Scott Lemoine went online to criticize the handling of a legal case involving the stepdaughter-in-law of a Livingston Parish judge, he ended up getting thrown in jail for cyberstalking.
The charges were eventually dropped, and a federal court found what it called “substantial circumstantial evidence” that Judge Elizabeth Wolfe had used her influence to steer Lemoine into jail and keep him locked up.
State officials apparently thought the evidence against Wolfe was pretty compelling, too. Why else would they have paid $100,000 in taxpayer dollars to settle a suit against Wolfe for her role in the matter?
That was good news for Wolfe, who was able to get government to pick up the tab for her troubles because of a Louisiana law that requires the state to defend those on its payroll who get into legal hot water while doing official duties.
But Wolfe wasn’t even the presiding judge in the case that Lemoine spoke up about, raising a big question about why taxpayers should have ended up on the hook for a fat cash settlement to make the lawsuit go away.
An even bigger puzzle involves why the Louisiana Judiciary Commission didn’t recommend disciplinary action for Wolfe, even though her behavior was questionable enough that state officials later didn’t want to fight a lawsuit's allegations she’d acted improperly.
State law allows the Judiciary Commission to keep its deliberations secret, leaving taxpayers in the dark. What we do know, after a lot of digging, is that problems like Wolfe’s aren’t an isolated case. As a lengthy investigation by this newspaper revealed earlier this year, the state ended up paying nearly $100,000 in legal bills for Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Jeff Hughes, who drew the attention of the FBI when he was a district judge after suspicions he’d improperly influenced a child abuse and custody case to help the mother, who had been a client of the lawyer Hughes was dating at the time. Hughes wrote apology letters to at least three parties in connection with his behavior, but the details of how the Judiciary Commission handled the matter are closed to public view.
If citizens can’t see how judges are being disciplined, then confidence in the courts will invariably suffer.
Reforming state law to make judges more accountable hasn’t been an issue in this year's gubernatorial and legislative races, but it should be.
Although Lady Justice might wear a blindfold, taxpayers should have a clear view of how their judges are — or aren’t — working to advance justice.