By The Advocate Staff | Featured on The Ouachita Citizen | February 2, 2020
In 2008, Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature pledged the state to attain the “gold standard” of ethics in government.
And when it comes to filling out forms, particularly for financial disclosures by elected officials, in many ways it was. But there turned out to be ways that Louisiana’s elected judges managed to avoid meaningful public access to the forms.
The judges argued that as a separate branch of government, they should handle their own ethics policies. Then they used that constitutional argument to construct a system of disclosure that is inferior to the other two branches and rooted in the technology of the last century.
A private group in New Orleans is filling in some of the gap, by creating a database of financial disclosure forms that in the days of computers and Google have not been put online by the Louisiana Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court has failed to recognize that judges are just as accountable as any other public official,” Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche said. “To not make this information readily available to the public is a symptom of the disconnect between the judiciary and the public.”
Goyeneche is correct, and voters should not have to rely on a donor-funded organization to perform a rudimentary government function.
Though they are public documents, judges’ financial disclosure forms have only been available upon request from the Louisiana Supreme Court. Not only is that system cumbersome, but it has stirred concern that anyone who requested one could be the subject of retribution from the judge they wanted to examine.
For the 289 judges from the Supreme Court on down, we can hardly argue that hard feelings or even retribution in judicial rulings has never occurred. After all, because judges are elected, lawyers — whether representing business, or trial lawyers — can be major campaign contributors. That alone is the cause of heartburn sometimes in the case of plaintiffs or defendants.
But the way to avoid such issues is by information, with judges — along with elected officials in legislative or executive branches of government — providing upfront the disclosures that can head off disputes over who’s influencing whom.
The highest court ought to be the most concerned about the reputation of the judiciary as a whole. But it often seems more concerned with protecting judges.
This newspaper has reported extensively about how judicial misconduct can remain hidden from the public thanks to a secretive process of addressing allegations. For instance, people who file complaints about judges with the Louisiana Judiciary Commission are barred from discussing them publicly.
The MCC’s praiseworthy actions ought to embarrass the court into a reassessment of whether, if we are the “gold standard,” the ethical nuggets are buried under paperwork, and can be revealed only after digging.