Louisiana justice’s civil rights case against peers denied

By Corinne Lincoln-Pinheiro | Apr 22, 2017

NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge recently refused to reverse a lower court's decision to dismiss a case brought by a Louisiana Supreme Court justice who accused four of his colleagues of allegedly violating his civil rights.

Supreme Court Justice Jefferson Hughes III filed a lawsuit in 2015 against Chief Justice Bernette Johnson and associate justices John Wiemer, Marcus Clark and Greg Guidry. They recused him from Bundrick v. Anadarko Petroleum and Walton v. Exxon Mobil because contributions to his re-election campaign were indirectly tied to the plaintiffs’ attorney. He claimed their actions violated the First and 14th Amendments, but U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance barred the suit because the justices were protected by the 11th Amendment, according to the court's April 4 decision. Hughes requested the dismissal be amended, but Vance did not overturn her decision.

“The federal district court’s recent decision to uphold the forced recusal of Justice Hughes was absolutely the right one,” Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch told the Louisiana Record. “Once again, we applaud the majority of state supreme court justices for taking this action and the federal court for upholding it.”

Hughes did not show evidence of “an ongoing violation,” Vance said in court documents. An exception to the 11th Amendment, which protect justices under the states’ sovereign immunity, meant Hughes had to show that specific violations of federal law by a Louisiana official had occurred over time.

“We hope this recusal case sends a clear message to all Louisiana judges that conflicts of interest will not be tolerated in our courts,” Landry said.

Hughes argued that his colleagues’ practice of recusing a justice based on the political participation of parties in court posed an ongoing risk of recusal. But Vance did see an exception to immunity in two instances that occurred on one day and involved only Hughes.

“The right to a fair hearing before an impartial judge is one of the most basic tenets of America’s legal system," Laundry said. “Maintaining strong standards for recusal is one of the ways our courts can minimize the influence of electoral politics from the judicial process and ultimately ensure public confidence in the independence and integrity of judicial decisions.”

The gifts to Hughes’ campaign allegedly came from several Louisiana landowners to two political action committees (PAC), Citizens for Clean Water and Land PAC LLC. They contributed approximately $500,000 to his 2012 re-election campaign. Hughes denied having any involvement with the PAC that would have barred his participation in the Bundrick and Walton cases. 

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