NEW ORLEANS—A legal dispute has led to division in the ranks of the Louisiana Supreme Court (LASC) as Justice Jeff Hughes, a first-term justice on the court, has filed a federal lawsuit against four of his colleagues for excluding him from pending legacy lawsuits.
Hughes filed his lawsuit on Dec. 30 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, questioning the constitutionality of his fellow justices’ decision.
That decision was a result of campaign contributions to Hughes' 2012 election given by a PAC run by plaintiffs’ attorneys in two legacy cases facing the court. The PAC—the Citizens for Clean Water and Land (CCWL)—was opposed by attorneys for ExxonMobil Corp., BP America Co. and Chevron Corp. in April, who claimed the PAC had made "careful and deliberate" campaign contributions to support Hughes’ election campaign.
Though the PAC's attorneys had opposed the motion, Hughes' fellow justices agreed with the oil companies, ordering the recusal of both Hughes and Justice Jeannette Theriot Knoll. While Knoll offered up a scathing objection to her removal, Hughes moved his rebuttal to the legal realm.
Yet his only recourse, in such a case, seemed to be federal court.
"There is no Louisiana law or LASC rule that provides for the rehearing, reconsideration, or repeal of the recusal of a LASC justice from a matter before that court," Hughes alleges in his complaint.
Melissa Landry, executive director of the Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, notes the case is but the latest in an ongoing war over legacy lawsuits in the state that deal with environmental contamination complaints against Louisiana oil and gas producers for activities over the past decades. This case also has the unfortunate side effect of reflecting poorly on Louisiana’s legal system, in her opinion.
"Justice Hughes' lawsuit against his fellow jurists is highly unusual and unfortunately serves another black eye on Louisiana’s legal reputation, which is already viewed as a 'judicial hellhole,'" Landry told the Louisiana Record.
For Hughes' part, the justice is seeking not only a reversal of the order against him, but that the LASC be banned from excluding justices from future cases "based on contributions to political action committees that supported their election."
At the heart of this case, however, is the notion of judicial neutrality, as well as the question of how great a role special interest is allowed to play in the legal system. The Louisiana Code of Judicial Conduct requires a judge to disqualify himself in cases where "the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned."
Landry notes that in some cases, other judges might have looked at this standard and recused themselves to avoid any question of partiality. Instead, recusal was pressed upon Hughes.
"Judicial neutrality is one of the defining elements of our legal system, and it is clearly challenged by the unique circumstances of this case," Landry said. "Surely, not every contribution from an attorney to a judge should trigger concerns of impartiality, but the extraordinary and outsized campaign expenditures of the plaintiffs’ attorneys involved in this case most certainly do."
Legacy lawsuits are also under the spotlight with this case. Baton Rouge trial lawyer John H. Carmouche, with the Baton Rouge-based firm Talbot, Carmouche & Marcello, formed the CCWL in 2012, raising more than $750,000 and spending more than 40 percent of that in support of Hughes' election campaign, according to Landry. In their motion to fight the recusal, plaintiffs' attorneys had argued the PAC had spent nearly $300,000 promoting other issues.
The money spent on the campaign paid for radio ads, fliers, polls and political consulting fees. Landry also alleged, however, that legacy attorneys continued to assist Hughes after his election, through the retirement of debt incurred during his campaigns. This was said to have occurred while Carmouche and his associates had legacy cases headed for the court.
Commenting on the overarching issue of conflict of interest in this case, Landry added, "The United States Constitution provides for a system of federal and state courts that operate with integrity, independent of outside influence—and that is what citizens expect."
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Chief Justice Bernette Johnson and Associate Justices Greg Guidry, Marcus Clark and John Weimer. The case is being heard by U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon.
United States District Court Eastern District of Louisiana Case number 2:15-cv-07165-MVL-DEK