Louisiana Oil & Gas Association President Gifford Briggs | Photo courtesy of Louisiana Oil & Gas Association
NEW ORLEANS – The race for an open Louisiana Supreme Court seat in Saturday's primary is "high on intrigue, low on interest," but some of the state's coastal and oil litigators are backing one candidate while their opponents press to get voters' attention.
"An enormous amount of money is being invested in the Louisiana Supreme Court race by a small group of trial lawyers who have a direct financial interest in coastal and legacy lawsuits," Louisiana Oil & Gas Association President Gifford Briggs said. "This kind of outsized spending contributes to the growing perception of Louisiana as a judicial hellhole, and it undermines the appearance of honest, even-handed decision-making in our state courts."
The trial bar has a history of throwing large amounts of money at political races in Louisiana, including campaigns for the state Supreme Court.
"The trial bar has been very active in two of the last three state Supreme Court races, collectively spending over $2 million to elect Justices Jeff Hughes and Jimmy Genovese," Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch Executive Director Lana Sonnier Venable said.
Hughes and Genoves "are generally considered unfriendly to defendants from the business community," Venable said.
Hughes in particular has had a controversial history on the state's highest court, in which his fellow justices once forced him to recuse from a case over campaign contributions he'd previously received, but managed to hang onto his seat in a subsequent election.
In the current Supreme Court District 1 race, the same group from the trial bar appear to have thrown their support behind Louisiana 5th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Hans Liljeberg. Liljeberg, an appeals court judge since his election in 2012 and whose current term is set to expire at the end of 2022, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in indirect and direct campaign contributions and campaign ad support from the trial bar this campaign for the Supreme Court.
Liljeberg is one of four Republicans running in the primary election for the District 1 seat previously held by former Justice Greg Guidry, who left the state's highest court last summer to take up his appointment to the U.S. District Court for Louisiana's Eastern District of Louisiana.
If none of the four candidates for Guidry's former seat on the Supreme Court receives a majority of the vote - 50 percent plus one - the top two candidates will advance to a runoff in the general election.
District 1 generally covers the greater Jefferson Parish area, including portions of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, St. Helena and Washington parishes.
Ducote scored some attention early in the race when he filed suit in Baton Rouge 19th Judicial District Court asking for a declaration that the state's statute for secrecy in judicial investigations is unconstitutional. Crain, who announced his candidacy soon after Guidry's departure was announced, has been riding a wave of support from the state's business community.
Liljeberg, who studied under Scalia, maintained in a pinned Twitter post that his "qualifications have prepared me to serve on the Supreme Court" and that "as a judge, I believe in the rule of law. Judges should impartially apply the law, not rewrite the law."
All four candidates also participated late last month in a Federalist Society-sponsored forum at Loyola School of Law for "a gentlemanly discussion" before two dozen students and faculty. The four discussed privacy, search and seizure law, separation of powers, how to interpret state law and other practical legal concerns.
The four did not discuss their campaign finances during the forum and that, as well as other hard-hitting topics, haven't come up much at all in the campaigns of the four candidates in a race one news outlet referred to as "high on intrigue, low on interest."
Despite so little interest, political pundit Jeremy Alford wrote in a Greater Baton Rouge Business Report opinion piece in late August that the Supreme Court race "is an interesting one."
While the wider electorate in the state may think the race is a yawner, Alford wrote it has the attention of "trial attorneys and the business lobby" who "love to play in these high-profile judicial races, with the former besting the latter more times than not."
The candidate who particularly has the attention of members of the trial bar active in coastal litigation in Saturday's primary is Liljeberg, whose campaign has benefited from almost $300,000 in direct, indirect and campaign ad contributions.
Prominent among Liljeberg donors is attorney John Carmouche, a partner in Talbot Carmouche & Marcello in Baton Rouge, who represents landowners and parish governments in lawsuits against oil companies. Other members of the trial bar financially supporting Liljeberg include Morrow, Morrow, Ryan, Bassett & Haik in Opelousas, Cossich, Sumich, Parisola & Taylor in Belle Chase and Veron, Bice, Palermo & Wilson and Mudd & Bruchhaus, both in Lake Charles.
In Louisiana, direct campaign contributions are limited to $5,000. Candidate supporters who want to contribute more often give their money to Political Action Committees (PACs) which in turn can provide the indirect financial support to their preferred candidate.
Much of the funding Liljeberg's campaign has received has come from Citizens Fight Crime PAC, chaired by Carmouche, and Louisiana Republican Judiciary PAC, chaired by Louisiana GOP chair Scott Wilfong, according to publicly available records.
Almost a third of the contributions, $91,000, were spent on a Liljeberg campaign ad that declared him as "recognized for his judicial independence" and "a law and order judge for our security," according to the Brennan Center.
The trial bar donations to the Liljeberg campaign aren't news to many observers, who point to questions raised by similar contributions in previous campaigns. Those observers, who include Louisiana State University Law Center professor emeritus John Baker, an attendee of the Federalist Society-sponsored forum, have recommended that any seated judge be required to recuse himself or herself in cases where their campaign contributors are litigants.
Louisiana already has had problems with at least one Supreme Court Justice over campaign contributions received from PACs with vested interest in coastal erosion and litigation arising from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill almost a decade ago. Justice Hughes was forcibly recused by four of his fellow justices from two environment damage cases in 2015 over contributions to Hughes' 2012 campaign from a PAC.
Hughes had received those sizable contributions via Carmouche's PAC. Later, two Carmouche-led appeals were scheduled to appear before the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2015 and the revelation of the PAC's contributions sparked Hughes' forced recusal for violating judicial impartiality.
Hughes ran unopposed for a full 10-year term in 2018, despite further tarnish to his reputation for bias last summer when an FBI probe into a decades-old custody case was revealed.
Baker said that a judge or justice "in any case involving a lawyer, law firm, corporation, union or person who gives over a certain amount of money to the judge's election campaign," should recuse himself. Baker added the "certain amount" to trigger recusal isn't clear.
"I don't know what that amount should be," he said.