Louisiana High Court Justice Sues Colleagues Over Recusal

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A Louisiana Supreme Court justice has sued four of his fellow justices, saying they illegally removed him from two cases.

         Justice Jefferson D. Hughes filed his lawsuit late last month in U.S. District Court in New Orleans after he was removed from two cases against oil companies. The suit says the defendants had sought Hughes' removal because attorneys for plaintiffs in the case had contributed to a Political Action Committee that supported his 2012 campaign for election to the high court.

         In his federal lawsuit, Hughes says removing him from the cases violates his constitutional rights.

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         He notes that there is no means for him to appeal his removal, known in legal terms as "recusal," at the state Supreme Court.

         Also, his attorney claims in the suit, the forced recusal effectively denies him his free speech as a candidate in Louisiana, where Supreme Court justices are elected from districts around the state. The recusal, the suit argues, "unconstitutionally limited Justice Hughes' speech as a judicial candidate and has in effect placed unconstitutional limits on the amount of money a person can contribute to a political action committee."

         Both lawsuits involved alleged environmental damage to property involving numerous oil companies and dating back decades. Attorneys seeking Hughes' removal said in court papers that, while issues in the case were pending at the Supreme Court, attorneys with a law firm representing the people suing the oil companies contributed $360,025 to a PAC that supported Hughes. The PAC also collected $365,000 from attorneys involved in similar litigation, the oil companies said, adding that the PAC spent $486,124 to support Hughes, who was seeking his first term on the high court.

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         Justice Jeanette Knoll was also removed from the cases after defendants filed a motion stating that her husband, an attorney, is involved in similar lawsuits. She hasn't filed suit to reverse the recusal but she filed a strong "for the record" criticism of the action at the state court.

         "All cases I rule on affect Louisiana jurisprudence which my husband and his law firm apply in the practice of law," she wrote. "Following defendants' assertion to its logical conclusion, I should have been recused from every case I have ever judged."

         Four of the seven Supreme Court Justices — Chief Justice Bernette Johnson and associate justices Greg Guidry, Marcus Clark and John Weimer — voted to recuse Hughes and Knoll. They did not give reasons.

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         Those seeking Hughes's recusal said they were not challenging attorney campaign contributions to judicial candidates. However, they said they were targeting a unique instance of "significant and targeted contributions made by a defined set of attorneys who have a direct interest in a discrete set of lawsuits."

         Hughes' attorney says in the lawsuit that by recusing him, the state Supreme Court is violating the First Amendment by effectively limiting the amount of money anyone can contribute to any PAC that supports a judicial candidate. And, the lawsuit notes, that limit has not been determined.

         – by AP Reporter Kevin McGill



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