Supreme Court Justice Jeff Hughes’ handling of a couple of child custody cases when he was a district court judge in Livingston Parish almost 20 years ago prompted The (Baton Rouge) Advocate to take a deep dive into why Hughes’ actions were kept secret from the public.
And the only reason this sordid affair saw the light of day is because someone most likely tipped off reporters at The Advocate about the cases. Regardless of how The Advocate learned about Hughes’ involvement in child custody matters many years ago, two Advocate reporters dug into it and learned Hughes’ behavior prompted complaints to the state Judiciary Commission, whose records are exempt from the state’s public records law. Still, The Advocate learned Hughes had written letters of apology to a number of people impacted by at least one of his child custody rulings. No information surfaced about why Hughes had written the letters, but the mere notion of a district court judge penning letters of apology for his decision in a case would lead any reasonable person to wonder why he did it.
Therein lies the problem. Since the Judiciary Commission’s official business is exempt from the public records law, no individual or member of the media can obtain a copy of a complaint filed against a judge for behavior the complaining party felt was out of line. Records of an investigation of a judge are off limits to the public as well. Also kept out of sight are any records of any action taken against a judge unless the Judiciary Commission recommends to the state Supreme Court that a judge be punished. Only then, or when the Supreme Court discloses its punishment for an errant judge, can the public learn anything whatsoever about a judge engaging in behavior that brought dishonor to the court.
The Advocate learned that some 543 complaints were filed against judges with the Judiciary Commission last year. Only 56 investigations were initiated. Over the past five years, according to The Advocate, the Judiciary Commission conducted 317 in-depth investigations of judges. Only 12 resulted in the Judiciary Commission recommending to the Supreme Court that a judge be punished. That means only 12 cases were made available to the public.
Here’s the biggie. Only one percent of all complaints filed with Judiciary Commission over the past five years reached the level of becoming a matter of public record. Only one percent.
Early this year, the Legislature entertained a bill brought by Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, a Republican from Houma, which would have required the state Judiciary Commission to publicly disclose its records related to the commission tagging an ethically challenged, or incompetent, judge whose actions or behavior ran afoul of the Code of Judicial Conduct — the ethics code for judges. Zeringue’s bill also would have required the Judiciary Commission to publicly disclose “any reminder” or “caution” meted out to a judge whose questionable behavior led to a complaint being filed with the Judiciary Commission.
As you might have expected, Zeringue’s bill died in the state House of Representatives. Locally, Reps. Frank Hoffmann and Katrina Jackson voted to kill the bill.
Zeringue, who was re-elected without opposition, has pledged to introduce his bill again next year.
There exist no reasonable explanation for why complaints filed against judges should be shielded from the general public. Any complaint and subsequent investigation involving your run-of-the-mill lawyer is a matter of public record. So, why do judges get a free pass? Is it because they’re special? Is it because they feel they’re above the law? Or is it possible that judges might be concerned the public will learn there are a host of ethically challenged and incompetant jurists serving on the bench from one end of Louisiana to the other?
As this campaign season evolves, it would behoove every voter to ask legislative candidates how they feel about Zee Zeringue’s efforts to shed a little light on the dark halls of justice in Louisiana.
Sam Hanna Jr. can be reached by phone at 318-805-8158 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.