Louisiana Record

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Bribery allegations against state Supreme Court justice must be investigated, tort reform and policy advocates say


By Karen Kidd | Nov 11, 2019

Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Hans Liljeberg, running for the District 1 seat on the state's Supreme Court | facebook.com/ElectLiljebergSupremeCourt

As an attempted bribery scandal raises a dark cloud over this weekend's runoff for a vacant seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court, tort reform and policy advocates say the state needs to investigate the matter.

"The public would be well-served if the appropriate authorities followed up in a timely manner to this incident," Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana President Robert Travis Scott said in an email to the Louisiana Record.

In a story that broke earlier this month, former Hammond City Councilman Johnny E. Blount alleged in an affidavit that Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Jefferson Davis Hughes III offered him $5,000 to flip his public support in Saturday's runoff.

Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch Executive Director Lana Sonnier Venable | Photo courtesy of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch

Blount has been supporting First Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Will Crain, but Hughes allegedly asked Blount to publicly support Crain's opponent for the open seat, Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Hans Liljeberg.

Hughes has denied the allegation.

It's difficult to overstate the possible ramifications, in the race and on the state's highest court, if Blount's allegations are true.

"The importance of the race to fill Louisiana’s vacant Supreme Court seat cannot be understated," Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch Executive Director Lana Sonnier Venable said in her own email to the Louisiana Record. "Since Louisiana justices serve 10-year terms and rarely face opposition in their reelection campaigns, the outcome of this race could determine the direction of the court for decades."

Crain and Liljeberg are in a runoff because neither received a majority of the vote in last month's primary, according to official election results. That left the pair, as the top two vote-getting candidates in the primary with Crain getting almost 39 percent of the vote compared to Liljeberg's approximately 32 percent, in a runoff for the Supreme Court seat.

The two are running for the seat previously held by Greg Guidry, who left the state's highest court to take up his appointment to the U.S. District Court for Louisiana's Eastern District of Louisiana. The runoff will decide who will fill out the remaining eight years of Guidry's term

Also running in last month's primary Supreme Court race were Jefferson Parish District Court Judge Scott Schlegel, who received approximately 17 percent of the vote, and Covington attorney Richard Ducote, who received approximately 11 percent.  

Guidry's former seat, District or 'place' 1, generally covers the greater Jefferson Parish area, including portions of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, St. Helena and Washington parishes.

Crain, who lives in Madisonville, has been on the First Circuit bench since 2013 while Liljeberg, who lives in Metairie, has been on the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal since his unopposed election in 2012.

Liljeberg has received substantial support from coastal and oil litigators while Crain's base of support seems to be drawn largely from the state's business community.

The bribery allegations are the latest controversy involving Hughes and allegations of misconduct. Last summer, a decade-old FBI investigation into bias allegations against Hughes came to light. The investigation covered alleged misconduct during his time as a judge on Louisiana's 21st Judicial District Court for Division F, Livingston, St. Helena, and Tangipahoa parishes.

Hughes, who lives in Walker, served on the 21st Judicial District bench from January 1991 to December 2004. He has been a justice on the Louisiana Supreme Court since 2013.

Blount's disturbing allegations against Hughes were published by NOLA on Nov. 1 but, thus far, no investigation or any official repercussions at all have been publicly announced.

"The allegations of misconduct by a member of our state's high court cannot be ignored," Louisiana for Common Sense Communications Director Jim Harris said in an email to the Louisiana Record. "Louisiana's judicial branch should be held to the same ethical standards as the executive and legislative branches. Transparency is important at all levels of government."

The state's reputation is at stake, Venable said.

"Instances of influence peddling and cronyism, along with the troubling lack of transparency in the way Louisiana's judiciary handles allegations of misconduct, have contributed to our longstanding reputation for judicial unfairness," she said. "Even with this lack of transparency, Supreme Court judicial misconduct opinions show that more than 40 Louisiana judges have been publicly disciplined by the high court over the last decade for violating their oaths and abusing their authority."

That sort of activity in the state's judiciary does not instill confidence, Venable said.

"This type of conduct has eroded the public's trust in the state's judiciary and discourages business, large and small, from investing in and creating new jobs for Louisiana's struggling economy," she said.

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Organizations in this Story

Louisiana Supreme CourtLouisiana Lawsuit Abuse WatchU.S. District Court for the Eastern District of LouisianaLouisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal31st Judicial District Court of Louisiana - Jefferson Davis Parish

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