Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Sues After Being Recused from Case

Does a state judge have a right to participate in a court case when lawyers who represent parties in the case have contributed substantial sums to political action committees (PACs) that supported the judge’s election? A Louisiana Supreme Court justice raised that question in a federal lawsuit against four other justices who forced him to refrain from participating in two cases before the state’s high court.

 

PAC Support for Justice Hughes

Justice Jeff Hughes is serving his first term on the Louisiana Supreme Court. All judges in Louisiana, including state supreme court justices, are elected to office. Justice Hughes’ campaign was supported by a PAC known as Citizens for Clean Water & Land (CCWL).

According to CCWL’s website, oil and gas companies in Louisiana have abandoned more than 18,000 waste pits and other hazardous sites. CCWL contends that the oil and gas companies were aware when they abandoned the sites that they harming the environment and creating health risks from water pollution.

CCWL takes the position that oil and gas companies should be responsible for cleaning up the abandoned sites, and that juries are in the best position to decide whether harmful contamination was caused by irresponsible corporate behavior. The organization’s PAC was created to influence the political process in an effort to offset campaign contributions made to elected officials by representatives of oil and gas companies.

Campaign finance laws limit the amount that a PAC can contribute to a candidate’s campaign. However, in the Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from limiting the amount that a PAC spends independently to support a candidate’s election.

According to Justice Hughes, CCWL made independent expenditures of $487,000 in support of his election campaign. That amount represented about 16% of all campaign spending in the eight-candidate race.

Attorneys for ExxonMobil, BP, and other energy companies maintain that CCWL’s PAC was created and largely funded by plaintiffs’ attorneys who bring class-action lawsuits against energy companies for environmental damage. They filed a motion to recuse Justice Hughes from participating in two cases involving energy companies, contending that CCWL’s support of his election raised a question of judicial bias.

PAC Strategies to Influence Judicial Elections

Plaintiffs’ attorneys are not the only special interest group with an interest in Louisiana’s judicial election campaigns. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry created four PACs during the 1990s for the express purpose of supporting pro-business judicial candidates. By 1998, three Supreme Court candidates supported by LABI won their elections, ousting two incumbents.

In a 2001 law review article, law professor John Echeverria wrote that “a coalition of petrochemical and other businesses has carried out a successful campaign to elect a majority of ‘business friendly’ justices” to the Louisiana Supreme Court. According to Echeverria, environmental issues have been a consistent focus of LABI, a group that has candidly admitted using financial and political power to influence the court’s composition. In fact, LABI has taken credit for “pro-business rulings” that, in its view, would not have occurred if its electoral efforts had not changed the membership of the court.

In a later article, Echeverria described case studies in four other states concerning attempts to influence outcomes in environmental cases by using campaign donations and PAC expenditures in partisan elections for judgeships. He noted that voters sometimes reject blatant attempts to stack the judiciary with judges who will favor a particular group, but that efforts to elect judges who will interpret the law to favor energy companies have met with significant success.

Judicial Recusal

When judges must be elected in partisan contests, they are in difficult positions. Financial backers of judicial campaigns tend to support candidates who are likely to favor their interests, just as voters for other political offices tend to support candidates who share their political ideologies. Judges are expected to recuse themselves (meaning they choose not to participate) when a substantial campaign contributor is a party in a lawsuit before the court, but they are generally allowed to let their conscience be their guide when a supporter who has not made large campaign contributions is likely to be affected by the lawsuit’s outcome.

Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Jeff Hughes was not allowed to make that decision. Along with another Justice, he was forced to recuse himself by four other Justices because the independent expenditures that CCWL made in support of his campaign allegedly created a situation in which his impartiality “might reasonably be questioned” — the standard that governs judicial recusal in Louisiana.

Notably, Justice Greg Guidry, who voted in favor of recusal, has received election campaign support in the past from Chevron and Doré Energy Corporation. Justice John Weimer, also voting to recuse Justice Hughes, received support from a variety of energy companies, including Halliburton, Citgo, Chevron Phillips, ChevronTexaco, the Texaco Political Involvement Committee, Energy Drilling Company, and more than a half dozen others. Outside observers might reasonably question their impartiality when they judge cases involving the energy industry, but they chose to participate in the energy company cases after ordering the recusal of Justice Hughes.

Justice Hughes’ Lawsuit

Justice Hughes responded to the recusal order by filing a federal lawsuit. His complaint alleges that he has a First Amendment right “to communicate his electoral message to the public,” including voters who fund PACs. He contends that the recusal chills his ability to communicate with supporters of his campaign because any supporter might one day have a case that he will be asked to decide. He also claims that the recusal improperly limits campaign contributions that his supporters have a right to make, although whether Justice Hughes is entitled to seek a remedy for harms allegedly suffered by his supporters is unclear.

The lawsuit is premised on the Supreme Court’s holding in Citizens United that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting expenditures by individuals or associations that support the election of candidates to public office. In Citizens United, the Court held that independent expenditures do not create a significant risk or appearance of corruption because independent expenditures are not made in consultation with the candidate and are not likely to result in a quid pro quo exchange of judicial favors for financial support.

While Citizens United appears to undermine the concern that PAC expenditures would affect Justice Hughes’ impartiality, whether the First Amendment restricts the ability of state supreme court justices to force the recusal of another justice is unclear. The federal court might nevertheless be concerned about the troubling use of recusal provisions by one faction of a court to prevent justices who hold different opinions from participating in the resolution of controversial cases.

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