By James Gill | Nola.com | February 2, 2020
If we didn’t assume that judges are smarter and more honest than the general run of humanity, we wouldn’t let them boss us about.
Sure, they can order a cop to enforce their will whether we respect them or not, but coercion cannot sustain their hegemony indefinitely. The judicial system treats them as a superior caste and might break down if we didn’t pretend that they deserve it.
They certainly do their best to sustain the illusion, sparing themselves much of the scrutiny to which other elected officials are subject. As a separate branch of government, the state judiciary has always insisted on its right to police itself. Self-regulation invites favoritism and skulduggery, but what are you gonna do about self-serving jurists? Sue them?
A little light is finally being shed on the secret life of judges but no thanks to them. The state Supreme Court has very slightly drawn back the veil of secrecy around complaints of judicial misconduct, but that move is merely a token gesture in response to damning newspaper coverage.
One of the revelations in the newspaper reports was that Jefferson Hughes, as a district judge, had mishandled two child-custody trials and dated the attorney of a litigant in one of them. That came to light only because, years later, recipients of apologetic letters Hughes had written to aggrieved parties in those cases broke the rule that barred them from talking about complaints they had lodged with the state Judiciary Commission.
The commission took no public action against Hughes, and evidently resolved the complaints by ordering him on the qt to write those letters. By the time this became known, Hughes had been elected to the court of appeal and then to the Supreme Court, which he still adorns. Chief Justice Bernette Johnson now declares the just-revised Judiciary Commission rules “protect the integrity of the judicial discipline process while insuring public trust and confidence.”
The public is unlikely to agree. The new rules still allow the commission to let errant judges off the hook if, in the strictest confidence, they write letters telling wronged litigants how sorry they are. Hughes, who may not have been a member of the court had voters known how unprincipled he is, joined his colleagues in voting for new rules that still keep documentation of alleged violations secret for eternity. But under the new rules, the commission may allow discussion of a complaint once a hearing had been set or the case closed. It remains to be seen how often it will feel like letting the sun shine in. Hitherto, all proceedings have been confidential until such time as the Supreme Court took action on a complaint, which happens in one case out of 100. Even then lenience has been the watchword. The instinct of the judiciary is clearly to close ranks and fob off its critics with cosmetic rules changes.
The judicial branch asserted its determination to exempt itself from the rules that govern ordinary mortals in 2008, when new rules were promulgated requiring elected officials to file annual financial disclosure reports which would be available online. Judges were originally included in the legislation but got themselves exempted with a promise that the state Supreme Court would introduce its own rules to expose judges’ financial affairs to public scrutiny,
It did indeed make every state judge file annual reports but did not require them to be posted online. They were available on request from the Supreme Court, which was a user-unfriendly system in more ways than one. If you went nosing around looking for the dope, say, on some Supreme Court justices sources of outside income, word would spread in no time. If the inquirer were an attorney or a litigant looking for a conflict of interest, the risk of courtroom retribution was always a concern. The judges were jake with a system that created an illusion of transparency while preserving their status as a breed apart.
Lots of them will hopping mad right now with the Metropolitan Crime Commission, which has collected all the reports filed by judges over the last five years and made them available to all on a searchable database. They will be carefully read by anyone seeking to oust a judge on Election Day, and should therefore keep them as honest as any regular Louisiana politician.
That should be good enough for anybody.