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Pressure builds for more transparency on judges with powerful business lobby’s new program

August 29, 2019
Originally posted on The Advocate

Louisiana’s powerful business lobby announced Thursday that it plans to ramp up activism in courtrooms with a new program meant to put a spotlight on the state’s opaque judiciary.

Though the public elects judges in Louisiana, voters are usually not privy to details about judicial misconduct that the Judiciary Commission can address with private cautions, admonishments and reminders to judges. Less than 1 percent of complaints filed about judges have reached the threshold to become public over the past five years, according to a recent Advocate analysis of Judiciary Commission data and rules about secrecy.

But the newspaper's exposure of hidden past investigations into Supreme Court Justice Jeff Hughes — and apology letters he later wrote to those who appeared in his courtroom — has given rise to calls for more transparency in the state’s judiciary. A Covington attorney recently filed a lawsuit to declare that the law that requires secrecy in judicial investigations is unconstitutional.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry is also adding pressure on the system, and the group revealed details Thursday about its newly created judicial program. LABI plans to evaluate judges based on categories like the length of time it takes them to clear dockets, their professionalism and more.

Lauren Chauvin, the director of the new judicial program, said LABI's judicial program will differ vastly from its legislative one. For instance, the group will not score judges based on their decisions from the bench in the way that LABI releases score cards based on how legislators vote.

“This is LABI’s first real dip in the judiciary wholeheartedly,” she said. “Our members are frustrated with their lack of knowledge. … It’s time for there to be more transparency and engagement from the public. The courtrooms are for the citizens.”

Louisiana's Supreme Court spokesman Robert Gunn said Thursday that the court had no comment on the initiative from LABI.

LABI is also creating a legal advisory council, which will meet a few times a year to discuss court cases that may affect the state’s business community. And the lobby will also likely be filing more amicus briefs in the future; LABI has hired attorney Karen Eddlemon to head up its amicus program and to scour lawsuits for those that the group may want to wade into.

Stephen Waguespack, LABI's president and CEO, said in a statement that the judicial program has been three years in the making. Waguespack made a strong push in 2015 to require that judges post financial disclosure statements and publish them online, similar to what is required for legislators and other public servants.

The effort was unsuccessful. People who want to view financial disclosures for judges must request them from the Supreme Court.

“Ask yourself this: can you name your district judges?” Waguespack said in a statement. “Appellate judges? What about your Supreme Court Justice? For most citizens, the answer is unfortunately no, and with so much decided in our courtrooms that directly affects all of us, that needs to change.”

Richard Ducote, the attorney who filed the lawsuit about the Supreme Court's secrecy rules, applauded the lobby Thursday for advocating judicial accountability. 

“I’m very happy to see the momentum and I am confident that things will change with the Judiciary Commission in short order,” Ducote said.