NEW ORLEANS – A federal court judge is being asked to take another look at a case involving the forced recusal of a Louisiana Supreme Court justice.
Four justices removed Jefferson Hughes, a fellow justice, from two environmental damage cases last year after it came to light that Hughes received contributions from oil companies involved in those cases through political action committees (PAC) during his 2012 campaign.
Hughes was elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2012 after receiving supposedly sizable contributions from a PAC created by John Carmouche, a Baton Rouge attorney representing landowners and parish governments in lawsuits against oil companies. Two of Carmouche’s appeals were originally scheduled to appear before the Louisiana Supreme Court last year, which led to the recusal of Hughes initiated by his fellow justices on grounds of violating judicial impartiality.
Efforts to remove a judge from a case due to conflict of interest involving campaign contributions are uncommon and typically reserved for extreme circumstances, John S. Baker Jr., professor emeritus of Louisiana State University Law Center, told the Louisiana Record.
Arguing that the recusal violated his constitutional rights, Hughes filed suit against his fellow justices in federal court. U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance dismissed the suit last month, citing the Eleventh Amendment in her decision. The Eleventh Amendment generally prohibits citizens from suing their state in federal court.
Attorneys for the oil companies claim that Hughes’ involvement in their case would violate their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees due process of law and equal protection under the law. Hughes, on the other hand, claimed his First Amendment rights to free speech are being violated by the recusal.
“The Supreme Court’s 11th Amendment and sovereign immunity jurisprudence generally bars suits against a state in federal court, but has recognized some exceptions,” Baker told the Louisiana Record.
Baker said that unlike typical suits against the state that seek a monetary payment, this particular case asks a federal court to interfere with the operation of the highest court of a state.
"That difference should make it even less likely that a federal court would find an exception in this situation," he said. "On the other hand, another federal district judge got involved in 2012 with the dispute over filling the chief justice position on the Louisiana Supreme Court. Given that Judge Vance was aware of all of this when she first ruled on the matter and also that federal judges rarely reconsider their rulings, it seems unlikely that she will reconsider.”
Landowners and their attorneys have asked Vance to reconsider arguing that their free speech rights are violated by Hughes’s removal.
"While Hughes has the standing needed to challenge the decision, it is unclear whether the landowners can demonstrate standing," Baker said.
Hughes filed a similar motion earlier this month, arguing that there is an ongoing threat to his constitutional rights, the plaintiff lawyers and people who contribute to judicial campaigns. Hughes is up for re-election in 2018.