In battle over ‘forced recusals,’ Louisiana Supreme Court justice takes his case to federal court

In an unusual legal skirmish, Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Jeff Hughes filed a federal lawsuit over the holidays against four of his fellow justices, challenging their decision to exclude Hughes from participating in consideration of two so-called legacy lawsuits before the high court because the plaintiffs’ attorneys contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his 2012 election.

Hughes, a Republican from Livingston Parish who is in his first term on the court, asked a federal judge to undo his “forced recusal” from the cases, claiming his colleagues on the bench effectively have placed “unconstitutional limits on the amount of money a person can contribute to a political action committee.”

In November, the state Supreme Court granted motions by a group of oil and gas companies to remove not only Hughes but also Justice Jeannette Theriot Knoll from the potentially high-stakes proceedings — a rare move that was followed, days later, by the court’s voting 4-1 not to take up either lawsuit in question. Applications for reconsideration remain pending in both matters.

The oil companies sought to portray Hughes as financially beholden to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, who backed his campaign for the court through a PAC known as Citizens for Clean Water & Land. The companies also took aim at the role Knoll’s husband has played as an attorney in several similar legacy lawsuits — cases that generally date back decades and seek compensation for environmental damage.

Knoll issued a blistering objection to her removal from the cases, saying her fellow justices had acted with “reckless disregard” and bowed to “the unprofessional tactics” of a special-interest group.

“At the behest of defendants,” she wrote, “this court has engaged in a high-handed attempt not only to manipulate the outcome of this case but also to disenfranchise the voters of my district who have elected and re-elected me.”

Hughes did not author such a dissent but quietly upped the ante last week in federal court, where he asked that the recusal orders be lifted and that his colleagues on the Supreme Court be barred from excluding justices from future cases “based on contributions to political action committees that supported their election.”

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Chief Justice Bernette Johnson and Associate Justices Greg Guidry, Marcus Clark and John Weimer.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon.

The justices did not offer any written explanation for recusing Hughes and Knoll. The state code of judicial conduct states that a judge “should disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” If a Supreme Court justice refuses to step aside — as in the cases of Hughes and Knoll — the state code of civil procedure calls for the recusal motion to be heard by the other justices of the court.

Kyle Schonekas, the New Orleans attorney representing Hughes, did not respond to requests for comment Monday. However, in a court filing, he warned that the recusals could reverberate far beyond the legacy lawsuits and that Hughes “may now be effectively barred from communicating with any individual who supports or might support his re-election because such individual may one day have a case” before the state Supreme Court.

The recusal, Schonekas added, also runs afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, a landmark decision that prohibits the government from restricting campaign contributions by corporations and unions. “Justice Hughes has a First Amendment right to communicate his electoral message to the public, including with individuals who contribute or might contribute to a political action committee,” he wrote in a 16-page filing.

Attorneys for ExxonMobil and BP, among other energy companies, raised concerns last year that their legal opponents, including Baton Rouge trial lawyer John H. Carmouche, who specializes in legacy lawsuits, had helped to bankroll Hughes’ runoff victory.

In court filings, the oil companies said Carmouche’s PAC “expended $486,124 in support of Justice Hughes in the primary and runoff elections,” paying for TV ads, direct mailers and polling. They said attorneys in Carmouche’s firm alone contributed some $360,000 to the PAC.

“Plaintiffs’ counsel were responsible for forming the PAC that contributed and expended nearly half of the total amount spent (on) Justice Hughes’ successful election campaign, and more than five and a half times the total amount of contributions raised by Justice Hughes in support of his primary election,” attorneys for the oil companies wrote, referring to the contributions as “extreme circumstances.”

“It is certainly logical and objectively reasonable,” they added, “for Justice Hughes to have a personal tendency toward plaintiffs’ counsel such that his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

Hughes countered in his federal court filing that the bulk of the funding from Carmouche’s firm had been spent on general environmental awareness advocacy that was not made in support of any specific candidate. “The $487,000 spent by the Clean Water PAC on independent expenditures in support of Justice Hughes’ election accounted for only 16 percent of all campaign spending” in the District 5 race, his attorney wrote.

One of the legacy lawsuits involves property in St. Martin Parish that was allegedly contaminated through oil and gas production. A judge dismissed the 2006 claims, citing the “subsequent purchaser” doctrine, which generally precludes a plaintiff’s right to compensation stemming from property damage that occurred before a purchase. That decision was affirmed in March by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal in Lake Charles.

The other case also dates back several years and involves land in Tensas Parish that also was contaminated by oil and gas exploration.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.

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