Jefferson Hughes III has won two elections to the state Supreme Court — most recently in 2018 when he ran unopposed.

But that might not have happened if voters had known about significant lapses that occurred two decades ago, when he was a district court judge in Livingston Parish.

Hughes was the subject of a five-year probe, kept hidden for years, even though he wrote three letters apologizing to litigants who appeared in his court. The investigation might never have come to light if reporters had not begun asking questions.

“Because of my actions, justice suffered,” Hughes conceded in one of the letters, though he does not say what actions he is referring to. The public may never know for sure, but the letter stems from a disputed custody case in which a grandmother claims Hughes was biased because he dated a lawyer who participated in the matter. At one point in the lengthy fight, Hughes locked up the grandmother for 11 days.

The Hughes case is Exhibit A for why Louisiana needs to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding judicial discipline.

Louisiana’s clandestine system places the interests of judges ahead of the interest of justice.

Complaints are filed in secret and adjudicated in secret. People who file grievances are barred from discussing their cases, on penalty of being found in contempt of court and carted off to jail.

That level of secrecy isn’t just dangerous, it’s unnecessary.

Judicial secrecy protocols are stricter and more sweeping than those for misconduct investigations into Louisiana lawyers, or for ethics probes into legislators and state and local government officials.

Lawmakers had a chance this year to do something, but they fell short.

State Rep. Jerome Zeringue, a Houma Republican, challenged the cloaked process after experiencing it himself through a complaint he filed against a judge.

Two years after he complained, he was informed the Judiciary Commission was closing his case without enough evidence to proceed.

Zeringue sponsored a bill this year that would have required the commission to make any actions it takes in a case public — including secret reminders, cautions and admonishments.

That’s the way things are done in most other states.

The measure passed unanimously out of committee but narrowly failed in the House, where many members see themselves as future judges — especially in the term-limit era.

We have an election coming in two months. Voters should ask legislative candidates to support a more accountable judiciary, and the candidates for governor should also commit to reform.

— The (Baton Rouge) Advocate

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