Sam Hanna Jr.

While tort reform is expected to dominate the headlines in the regular legislative session that begins next week, it isn’t the only hot topic the Legislature will entertain.

Among the 1,120 bills that lawmakers pre-filed in the House and Senate as of close of business Friday were a number of measures aimed at cleaning up the state’s judiciary including legislation that could possibly end the election of judges.

State Sen. Jay Morris of Monroe and Rep. Jerome Zeringue of Houma co-sponsored legislation that would greatly improve the public’s access to information concerning misbehaving judges. Their effort entails a two-pronged approach. First, they filed a bill that lays out the changes to state law as it relates to filing complaints against judges and whether the general public would be informed about punishment judges received from the state body that’s responsible for policing judges, better known as the Judiciary Commission. Secondly, Morris and Zeringue filed a proposed constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature the authority to establish the confidentiality rules for the Judiciary Commission. The amendment must be approved by the voters statewide before the meat of their first bill can be implemented. That’s the normal process lawmakers must pursue to alter the state Constitution — a bill that lays out the change to the Constitution and an accompanying measure that voters must approve to make it happen.

The intent of the Morris/Zeringue effort is very simple. It would force the Judiciary Commission’s handling of complaints filed against judges into the public arena, which represents a dramatic change from how the Judiciary Commission currently handles its affairs. As it stands now, the Judiciary Commission conducts its business behind closed doors and only when the state Supreme Court takes corrective action against a judge — which occurs only on the recommendation of the Judiciary Commission — does the general public learn if a judge had broken any rules governing his or her behavior. Needless to say, the Supreme Court seldom punishes a judge, and that’s the case because the Judiciary Commission has been covering up for errant judges for years.

Specifically, the Morris/Zeringue bill would allow individuals to publicly disclose whether they had filed a complaint with the Judiciary Commission, and it would make public when judges were scheduled to appear before the Judiciary Commission to answer a complaint.

The Morris/Zeringue bill also would make public any punishment — admonishments, cautions or warnings — a judge might receive from the Judiciary Commission. Currently, punishment meted out by the Judiciary Commission is handled privately.

As you may have assumed, the Judiciary Commission has already disclosed its opposition to the Morris/Zeringue bill, and over the weekend, the Judiciary Commission outlined some changes it would pursue to address concerns the Morris/Zeringue bill raised. And as you may have suspected, the Judiciary Commission’s proposed changes don’t amount to squat.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria filed a bill that would require judges’ personal financial disclosure statements to be posted online on the state Ethics Board’s web site. Harris’ bill is long overdue.

The Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC) in New Orleans beat Harris to the punch when it launched a wrinkle to its web site about a month ago disclosing the financial disclosure statements for judges across the state. The question is should the general public be forced to rely on a non-profit like MCC to do what the judges promised they would do — but never did — when the Legislature approved an overhaul of the state’s ethics laws about a decade ago under then-Gov. Bobby Jindal? The answer is “No,” of course.

Harris also filed legislation that would end the election of judges in Louisiana. His proposal, which would require altering the state Constitution, would establish a 15-member nominating commission comprised of lawyers and non-lawyers who would vet potential judicial candidates. The commission would send three names to the governor to appoint to the bench to fill a vacancy.

Harris argues his legislation is needed in light of the vast amounts of money that’s being spent to elect judges, who presumably are beholden to the special interests groups that spent big money to get them elected. Really?

It’s not surprising to see legislation in the hopper aimed at the judiciary. For months we’ve been exposed to one news report after another in The (Baton Rouge) Advocate about the trials and tribulations of judges gone awry, and for the past five-plus years The Ouachita Citizen has reported extensively about an ongoing lawsuit accusing judges of conspiring to cover up the alleged misdeeds of a law clerk who a federal judge described as “rogue.”

The general public, especially in Louisiana, has a relatively high tolerance for misbehavior among public officials, including judges, though there’s a limit to what the public will stomach. Eventually, the public will react and it will react very negatively. That’s what prompts a reform movement.

Like it or not, the judiciary is at the heart of what has the makings of a minor reform movement in Louisiana and though many judges probably detest it, they must reap what they have sown.

Sam Hanna Jr. can be reached by phone at 318-805-8158 or e-mail at samhannajr@samhannajr.com.

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