Staff Editorial | Nola.com | May 21, 2020
How embarrassing was it for Louisiana’s secretive Supreme Court when the Metropolitan Crime Commission of New Orleans put the judges’ financial disclosure forms online?
The Legislature’s disclosures are online, and so are the governor’s. But the justices were making members of the public file a records request to see theirs.
The Crime Commission, which relies on private donations, shamed them and now the justices have suddenly discovered the wonders of 21st-century technology. They are putting their disclosures online, though only for 2018. They should have been doing this a decade ago, and the MCC data is still more complete.
Judges have breathtaking power. They can take away your freedom, ruin your business, seize your children. So they need to ensure public confidence in their fairness by tilting toward transparency.
But instead, the Supreme Court has embraced secrecy, and the public is losing confidence and patience.
Putting the disclosures online was not the first time the justices bowed to public pressure.
Earlier this year, they decided to let the public attend hearings against judges accused of misconduct.
But the Judiciary Commission, which handles complaints against judges, will continue to dole out chastisements privately in the form of reminders, cautions and admonishments. So a judge undergoing secret discipline for bias or incompetence might at the same time be sentencing you to jail or imposing a ruinous judgment against your business. And if you file a complaint, they send you a threatening letter demanding that you keep your mouth shut.
The secrecy is damaging the judiciary, and Exhibit A is Justice Jefferson Hughes III of Livingston Parish. Hughes was subject of a five-year probe by the Judiciary Commission and the FBI over biased rulings when he was a district judge. He eventually wrote three secret apology letters to litigants in his courtroom. “Because of my actions, justice suffered,” he wrote to a grandmother, whom he jailed for 11 days after she accused him of bias in a custody case and ran off with her grandson to Mississippi.
The inquiry was kept secret and voters eventually elevated Hughes to the Supreme Court without ever knowing about his apologies.
One way to rebuild confidence is a constitutional amendment proposed by state Rep. Jerome Zeringue, a Houma Republican, that would give the Legislature, rather than the Supreme Court, authority over confidentiality rules for the Judiciary Commission. The Supreme Court claims it should be allowed to make its own rules as an independent branch of government.
Hughes and his colleagues — Chief Justice Bernette Johnson and Will Crain, Scott Crichton, James Genovese, Marcus Clark and John Weimer — need to show the state that protecting the integrity of the courts is more important that protecting misbehaving judges. And they need to act boldly and proactively, rather than offering small concessions every time they feel cornered.