By John Simerman | Nola.com | May 15, 2020
The Louisiana Supreme Court began posting the current financial disclosures of state judges on its newly revamped web site this week, the latest step to quell rising public pressure for more transparency within the state’s elected judiciary.
The move by the state’s highest court to post a year’s worth of those reports follows a shaming by the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a private criminal justice watchdog in New Orleans. The watchdog group received years worth of those disclosures from the court and posted them on its web site in January.
The MCC database includes financial disclosure forms for each of the 289 judges seated on Louisiana’s district and appellate courts, along with the state Supreme Court, dating back five years.
At the time, MCC President Rafael Goyeneche pointed out the ease with which the court itself could post those same documents, which are meant to shine a light on how members of the judiciary earn their incomes.
They were available upon request of the Supreme Court since the court put in the rule in 2009, and rarely viewed.
In a news release on Friday, the Supreme Court said it had started with posting those disclosure statements for active judges filed last year for the 2018 tax year, searchable by name and court.
New reports would be posted going forward, but disclosures from previous years would remain off the site, available with a phone call.
“It’s a start. Sometimes it takes a gentle nudge, and we supplied that,” Goyeneche said Friday. “And thankfully the Supreme Court recognized they owe the public the same transparency and accountability that every other elected official in the state of Louisiana provides the public. Kudos to them.”
The court’s online publication of the documents followed its decision a month ago to open to the public hearings against judges who have been accused of misconduct — a major change to a process that has always been cloaked in secrecy.
Hardly any of those misconduct investigations have seen the light of day, with only a handful of complaints each year — or in some years none — reaching the Supreme Court for a decision on discipline.
The high court still allows the Judiciary Commission to issue a restricted number of secret cautions and admonishments.
It also declined to change rules that prevent people who have filed complaints from discussing them while the complaints remain pending. Complainants have long been told never to speak of their formal complaints against judges, or the disciplinary process where those complaints are adjudicated.
Under Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson’s order, the measures aimed at increasing transparency for judicial misconduct proceedings went into effect May 1.
The sudden move toward transparency follows a series of stories last year by The Advocate and The Times-Picayune revealing how judicial misconduct in Louisiana often remains hidden from the public.
The high court’s announcement last month about the possibility of rule changes came as the Legislature was about to convene a session that included multiple bills targeting the Supreme Court’s lack of transparency in misconduct investigations.
Goyeneche called the recent moves “the beginning of the Supreme Court moving from the Dark Ages into the new millennium.”
“I think the Supreme Court is recognizing that the public expects more accountability and transparency,” he added. “This is the beginning. This isn’t the end.”