Twelve years ago in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s first year in office, the newly elected governor called a special session for lawmakers to entertain a package of reform bills to improve ethics in state government.
Jindal specifically targeted politicians, and one of the cornerstones of the reform effort would prohibit elected officials and members of their families from engaging in business with a state or local government agency. In order to ensure no elected officials and members of their families were doing business with government, elected officials would be required to disclose their personal financial information, otherwise known as personal financial disclosure statements.
Lawmakers reluctantly went along with Jindal’s reform measures but not before then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Kitty Kimball showed up at the capitol to insist judges be exempt from the financial disclosure requirement. Kimball argued the Legislature had no business telling another branch of government — the judiciary — how to run its business. To assuage concerns about the Legislature giving judges a free pass, Kimball assured lawmakers the Supreme Court would institute its own policies requiring judges across the state to disclose their personal financial information. In other words, judges would police themselves.
The Supreme Court eventually got around to requiring judges to fill out financial disclosure forms, but the court never made the information readily available to the public. Under the Jindal disclosure requirement, elected officials were required to turn over their financial disclosure statements to the state Board of Ethics, which, to this day, posts the reports on the Ethic Board’s web site for anyone and everyone with a computer and an internet connection to access at any time.
The Supreme Court, on the other hand, won’t disclose a judge’s financial disclosure statement unless you submit a request in writing to the Supreme Court, which means the judge, whose personal financial information you sought, is informed about the request and who submitted it. To surmise, the Supreme Court made it as difficult as possible for the public, including the press, to get a copy of a judge’s financial disclosure statement, and the court put a mechanism in place for a judge to seek retribution against anyone, particularly a lawyer, who had the audacity to inquire about a judge’s personal finances.
That, in a nutshell, is how and why judges have been able to shield their personal financial disclosure statements from the general public for the past decade or so.
But everything changed last week when the Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC) in New Orleans added a special feature to its web site that makes the financial disclosure statements of judges readily available to anyone who is even remotely interested in a judge’s financial affairs. MCC posted the financial disclosure reports for every judge in the state for the past five years. It’s extensive and very easy to access. You can get it at metrocrime.org/judicial-financial-disclosure-statements.
MCC has been around since the early 1950s. It’s a privately funded, non-profit organization that focuses on rooting around public corruption and the like, usually in the greater New Orleans area. While MCC is not what you would consider a fan favorite among those whose livelihood depends on operating in the shadows, its contributions to Louisiana at large are immeasurable.
It’s almost laughable that it took the efforts of the Metropolitan Crime Commission to do what the Supreme Court refused to do for more than 10 years. It’s even more laughable that the Legislature never held the judges accountable.
Perhaps it’s because so many lawmakers are lawyers and they, too, may be concerned about practicing law in front of a judge who might be upset over the Legislature passing a law that treats them like every other elected official in Louisiana.
Yet, the Legislature is off the hook for now thanks to the determined efforts of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
Sam Hanna Jr. can be reached by phone at 318-805-8158 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.