(Corrected) Legal expert: Judges need to recuse themselves when contributors become litigants

By Justin Stoltzfus | Mar 1, 2016

John Baker  

NEW ORLEANS — With the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry backing Marilyn Castle and trial lawyers supporting Jimmy Genovese  in the race to replace outgoing state Supreme Court Justice Jeanette Knoll, the flow of political donations from special interest groups such as these raises the question of whether judges should recuse themselves when contributors become litigants.

The question is particularly poignant in light of a recent lawsuit filed by Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Jeff Hughes against four of his colleagues for excluding him from pending legacy lawsuits because of campaign contributions made to his 2012 election by a PAC run by plaintiffs’ attorneys in two of the cases facing the court.

John Baker, a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center and professor emeritus  at Louisiana State University Law Center, recently told the Louisiana Record that he believes judges should look at recusing themselves from cases in situations where they have received over a certain amount of money from campaign contributors. 

Baker said, however, that you can't simply outlaw campaign contributions, because that's part of the normal process.

“You have to do a study on what's been the norm.” Baker said. “There's a lot of devil-in-the-details.”

Unfortunately, he added, there simply isn’t an abundance of concrete, applicable laws that will stop dubious campaign financing from getting out of hand.

Baker pointed to a piece that he wrote surrounding the controversy of corruption rules for judges and lawyers. In the op-ed titled “Ethics Enforcement in the Court System,” Baker describes two cases: in one, a judge receives a slap on the wrist for an obvious receiving of gifts from litigating parties. In another, a lawyer is suspended for attempting to get a judge recused for bias.

In explaining the difference, Baker cites “institutional politics” and talks about the “coziness between some lawyers and trial judges.”

“The great majority of Louisiana’s judges, I assume, are honest.” Baker said. “The failing of many judges and lawyers, however, may be turning a blind eye to occasional judicial misconduct. Maintaining good relations among state judges, and between lawyers and judges is important, but not at the cost of tolerating unethical conduct.”

The mandate, Baker said, is simple: judges need to be neutral. Failing that, there’s a burden on the system to correct corrupt behavior.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry had endorsed Genovese when they have endorsed Castle.

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