NEW ORLEANS — The Louisiana Supreme Court changed its rules Friday, lifting at least a portion of the veil of secrecy surrounding complaints against judges.
The high court voted unanimously to allow people making complaints against judges – or witnesses who testify in front of a judicial discipline panel or even the accused judges themselves – to talk freely about the complaint once the case is closed or turned over to the Supreme Court.
That means Dean Gilbert, a New Orleans man who was sentenced to 11 days in jail from a closed courtroom in 2016 and filed a complaint against Orleans Civil District Court Judge Sidney Cates IV, would now be free to say he made the complaint, the Judiciary Commission took “appropriate action” and sent him a letter closing the case.
On Aug. 15, when WWL-TV reported on Gilbert’s complaint, the Judiciary Commission said he was not allowed to tell anyone about it and threatened to take action against him if he did. The change in rules ends that practice.
"I’m relieved that I won’t get a knock on the door and I’ll be taken to jail – again," Gilbert said when WWL-TV informed him of the rules change.
But Gilbert was guarded in his reaction, noting that the change in rules still doesn't force the Judiciary Commission to disclose what discipline it imposes on elected judges.
"They’re doing this as a prophylactic measure to say there’s no reason to look at this because we fixed it already," Gilbert said. "I think this is only an important first step, where they may see this as a first and final step."
Legal experts who reviewed the letter Gilbert received said his First Amendment rights to free speech were being violated.
“The First Amendment should give that citizen the right to talk about his interactions with his government and what his government did in response,” said Dane Ciolino, a leading legal ethics expert who successfully fought to make attorney discipline cases more transparent.
In addition to WWL-TV’s story about Gilbert, the TV station and its partners at The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate exposed apology letters written by Supreme Court Justice Jeff Hughes before he was elected to two 10-year terms on high court.
The letters showed that Hughes had an improper relationship with an attorney while she was arguing custody cases in his court, but voters never found out about them before electing Hughes because the Judiciary Commission never opened a public case at the Supreme Court.
The newspaper also found Louisiana’s Judiciary Commission complaint process is among the most secretive in the nation.
Ciolino said judges’ discipline should be even more open than complaints against attorneys because judges are elected officials.
Northshore attorney Richard Ducote has made judicial secrecy a key part of his campaign for a seat on the Supreme Court. He said all judicial complaints should be open to the public, just like legal complaints in the courts are. He filed a lawsuit last month to declare unconstitutional a state law prohibiting the release of information before the Judiciary Commission.
He said Friday’s rule change was clearly a direct response to pressure from news stories.
Judiciary Commission Chairman Philip Sherman defended the overall system of maintaining confidentiality. He said it is important to protect judges from frivolous complaints and also to protect complainants from retaliation.
Ducote said the fact that the commission can no longer threaten people like Gilbert is a positive step, but he said the larger problem – that judicial discipline is not public unless the Supreme Court takes action – remains.
“It’s window-dressing,” he said. “They’re saying people can talk about it when it’s closed. However, the basic problem of these sort-of private reprimands and counseling letters is still there. The Judiciary Commission still controls the spigot of what gets out by deciding whether or not to file something with the Supreme Court.”