NEW ORLEANS – A federal court is expected to rule soon on the lawsuit filed by Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Jeff Hughes requesting a reversal of his forced recusal by fellow justices, citing violation of his constitutional rights.
This is the latest chapter of a political saga that began in April 2015 when defendants in the legacy lawsuits Bundrick v. Anadarko and Walton v. Exxon Mobil filed a motion to recuse Hughes from hearing the cases. ExxonMobil Corp., BP America Co. and Chevron Corp. argued that attorneys for the plaintiffs gave $750,000 to Hughes' judicial campaign through a political action committee called Citizens for Clean Water and Land (CCWL).
"(We're) watching the case closely because it illustrates the toxic influence that a very small cadre of trial lawyers has had -- or attempted to have -- on Louisiana's judiciary," Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch (LLAW), a grassroots legal watchdog organization, told the Louisiana Record.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs in Walton and Bundrick filed a memorandum in May 2015 to oppose the motion to recuse Hughes, denying their political contributions were overly influential in his campaign. This argument was made despite the fact that Hughes' campaign expenses were twice that of his opponent.
The state supreme court granted recusal orders on Nov. 12 for Hughes and Justice Jeannette Theriot Knoll without assigning reasons. Court records on later proceedings note that Knoll's husband is a plaintiff attorney in legacy lawsuits. The high court denied the writs filed in Walton and Bundrick on Nov. 16, and the cases never went to court.
Hughes filed a lawsuit Dec. 30 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana against colleagues Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, and Associate Justices Greg Guidry, Marcus Clark and John Weimer. His unprecedented suit alleges the recusal violates his First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights.
Less than a month later on Jan. 14, the plaintiffs from the Walton and Bundrick cases and the CCWL filed a motion in federal court requesting an injunction to prevent the defendant justices from enforcing Hughes' recusal. This was followed by a March 22 memorandum by the defendant justices opposing the motion to intervene and a March 29 motion to dismiss Hughes' lawsuit.
"In spite of all the filings and complex legal arguments, this case boils down to judicial impartiality," Landry said.
Hughes filed a memorandum on April 19 to oppose the defendant justices' motion to dismiss his case. In it Hughes states the recusal was arbitrary and violated his 14th Amendment right to due process.
"(I) was singled out for recusal without any stated reason or justification, and certainly without recourse," Hughes said.
The suit also states that a favorable decision by the court would allow PACs, judicial candidates, the public and Hughes to give and/or receive independent donations without fear of future retribution.
"Hughes is basically arguing he won't be able to solicit donations from certain parties, such as this group of trial lawyers, because he may not be able to consider their cases," Landry said. "Obviously, this rationale is deeply flawed."
The defendant justices responded with an opposing memorandum on April 27 that said Hughes is ignoring the fact they are immune to a lawsuit because the recusal was issued as part of their judicial duties. They also argued that he has no First Amendment claim because it "does not prohibit speech restrictions related to Plaintiff's professional responsibilities."
The Louisiana Code of Judicial Conduct requires a judge to disqualify himself in cases where his impartiality might be questioned.
"Hughes' recusal in this unusual case was necessary to ensure public confidence in the independence and impartiality of the high court's decision," Landry said.