LANDRY: A “Perception Problem,” Or Perhaps More, In Louisiana’s Judiciary

judges and moneyPolitical columnist John Maginnis once described the old system of lawmakers holding fundraising during the Legislative Session as “tantamount to legalized extortion.”

Before the practice was banned in 2005 due in large part to the leadership of Governor Kathleen Blanco, legislators would vote on bills days and perhaps even hours after receiving campaign contributions from the very same interest groups they were seeking to regulate.

What could be wrong with that?

Former Representative (now Senator) Eric LaFleur described it best during a committee hearing when he said, “It is about perception.”

“Perception can become someone’s reality.  And I think that’s what happens when you have a pre-scheduled fundraiser and you happen to be voting on [a related] bill… whether or not the two are related, whether or not there is a quid pro quo… it gives the perception that there is [one].”

Indeed.  It does.  And to the legislature’s credit, they recognized the perception problem and they took action to put a stop to it.

Would it be too much to ask for the same from our judges?

Our judges are supposed to hold themselves to the highest ethical standards and preside over cases with absolute impartiality—and I would argue that most do.   But our imperfect system of electing members of the judiciary allows money to infect the process—even at the most inopportune and inappropriate moments.

Last night, more than 35 Baton Rouge attorneys- mostly high profile members of the trial bar- hosted a fundraiser for 19th Judicial District Court Judge Janice Clark. Among them was E. Wade Shows, who is representing state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell in a high-profile case against the oil and gas industry that was in Clark’s courtroom earlier this week.

Yes. The hearing was held just three days prior to the fundraiser. And the suit was not resolved this week, so it will be taken up again early next month. So I think it is fair to say that Shows has a significant interest in the outcome of a case that is currently pending before Judge Clark.

Now, I believe most reasonable people would find this inappropriate and highly concerning.  But when Shows was asked about the apparent conflict of interest he said, “This goes on all the time—lawyers serving on the host committee for judges.  There is no conflict.”

Indeed. According to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which regulates judges, there is no blanket prohibition against attorneys holding fundraisers for judges—even when attorneys have cases pending before them.

So apparently it is not illegal, but perhaps it should be?

Nationwide, Louisiana is already known for having one of the worst legal climates in the US, and a lack of judicial impartiality is often cited as one of the reasons why. High profile cases such as this will only add more fuel to that fire.  Shouldn’t we be moving in the other direction?

The Louisiana Supreme Court could implement new rules to limit or ban the practice of judges accepting campaign contributions from lawyers who are involved in cases currently pending in their courts

They can put an end to this perception problem, just as the Legislature did more than five years ago. They can.  And they should.

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