The Fourth Judicial District Court administrator said he was given an undated and unsigned copy of an ad hoc judge’s ruling in a lawsuit filed by the district court against The Ouachita Citizen about a week before the judge’s ruling was officially filed with the Ouachita Parish Clerk of Court’s office.
Earlier this year, Fourth Judicial District Court Chief Judge Stephens Winters sued The Ouachita Citizen on behalf of the district court for declaratory judgment after the newspaper submitted a criminal complaint with Fourth Judicial District Attorney Jerry Jones’ office. The complaint concerned the court’s refusal to release public records sought by The Ouachita Citizen.
Retired Judge Anne Simon of New Iberia ruled on June 11 that the district court acted properly by rejecting The Ouachita Citizen’s public records requests related to law clerk Allyson Campbell. Campbell also was a party to the civil lawsuit involving the newspaper and district court.
Ouachita Parish Clerk of Court Louise Bond said an unsigned and undated copy of Simon’s ruling was first received by her office on June 1. A deputy clerk saw that Simon’s ruling was not signed, made a copy of it and sent the original back to Simon to be signed and dated. Bond said the original was returned on June 11 and it was officially filed at that time.
Bond said two of her civil deputy clerks told her that Campbell insisted on getting a copy of the unsigned ruling on June 10 “and they gave it to her.”
“They know not to release documents until that area is signed,” Bond said.
Scott Sternberg, a New Orleans attorney representing The Ouachita Citizen in the matter, received a copy of the unsigned ruling on June 10. It was sent to him by Monroe attorney Jon Guice, who represented the Fourth Judicial District Court in its records dispute with the newspaper.
Bond said the early release of unsigned rulings will not occur at her office again because she has now instructed the deputy clerks not to make copies.
Court administrator Ben Jones, who is a retired Fourth Judicial District Court judge, said he had seen an unsigned copy of Simon’s ruling around a week before June 11. When asked how many days before June 11 he saw the unsigned judgment, Jones said, “Probably a week prior to the 11th (of June).”
A retired Fourth District Court judge, who did not want to be identified, said all parties in a civil proceeding should receive signed rulings simultaneously. Only once a ruling has been signed, dated and finalized should it be released to the parties, he said.
Jones noted that an unsigned judgment or ruling was not official and could be modified or withdrawn. He said he thought it was inappropriate to have a judge’s ruling before it was properly filed.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate to even acknowledge outside of my office that I didn’t see it because an unsigned judgment is not a judgment,” Jones said. “Until it is signed it can be withdrawn or modified.”
At another point in Jones’ conversation with The Ouachita Citizen, he said the Clerk of Court’s office may have released the unsigned ruling but “nothing came to the judges’ office.”
“If Ms. Bond says to you that her office released a copy of the unsigned judgment, I think you can take her at her word, but nothing came to me — the court administrator — or to the chief judge who was out of town,” Jones said. “In fact, nothing came to the judges’ office. I still haven’t seen a copy of the signed judgment.”
Jones said he was unaware that Simon’s ruling had arrived unsigned.
“I was unaware it was unsigned because I had a conversation with Judge Simon,” Jones said. “She ordered a transcript (of the hearing), and then came the question of (her) payment for the transcript. That was after the 1st (of June). She told me she had sent it (the judgment), but I did not ask her about it or the content of that judgment.”
Jones would not reveal who gave him the document though he later said he learned about the ruling through Campbell.
“I do remember who personally handed me a copy (of the unsigned ruling) but I will not say who it was,” Jones said. “Frankly, it was through her (Campbell) that I was made aware the (ruling) had been filed. Apparently, she had regularly checked.”