NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - In the heart of New Orleans' French Quarter, the most powerful judges in the state of Louisiana hear cases in a 110-year-old, white marble courthouse.
"As the judges of the judges, they should be like Caesar's wife, as pure as the driven snow," says Tulane law professor Joel Friedman of the Louisiana Supreme Court. "And they should hold themselves to the highest possible standard."
But Friedman questions one Supreme Court justice, who recently won election to a second 10-year term.
The concerns are tied to a high profile case on the North Shore. St. Tammany Parish officials and a citizens group, Concerned Citizens for St. Tammany Parish, sued to stop Helis Oil from fracking at a site about 1.25 miles away from Mandeville's Lakeshore High School. After losing cases in the lower courts, CCST took their appeal to the La. Supreme Court and were denied. They appealed and asked the Supreme Court to reconsider, and lost again.
What the citizens group likely didn't know is that, at the same time the court considered their appeal, one of the justices took campaign contributions from Helis and its attorney.
"Shocking, it seems to me, as just a matter of obvious fairness, " Friedman says. "There's nothing wrong, inherently, with receiving contributions. But it's the context of the contribution. It's receiving a contribution from a lawyer in a case pending in front of you, from a client in a case pending in front of you. That is the context."
To examine the timeline:
- On March 9 of this year, the state's First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Helis, setting up an appeal to the Supreme Court;
- On March 21, state records show Taylor Porter Brooks & Phillips, one of the law firms representing Helis, contributed $1,000 to Justice Marcus R. Clark's campaign;
- Written arguments for the appeal were due to the Supreme Court on May 2. That same day, Helis Oil made a $2,000 contribution to Clark's campaign.
- On June 17, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Helis, four to three. Judge Clark ruled in favor, though, of the losing side, CCST.
- Later in June, CCST took one more shot, asking the court to reconsider. St. Tammany's parish council also asked the court to reconsider. The requests led one judge, Bernadette Johnson, to change her vote from Helis to CCST. So if Clark would have kept his vote the same, the Supreme Court would have taken up the case. Instead Clark switched his vote in favor of Helis; CCST's chance at a hearing were denied.
By the way, before those two donations, Helis and the law firm had never previously donated to judge Clark.
"Seems to me, any reasonable person - every reasonable person - would ask why is a judge receiving a campaign contribution from a party and the lawyer for that party in a case presently awaiting a decision by that judge," Friedman tells us. "Why else? This is the inference. Why else, for the first time ever, would this lawyer and/or this client, make a campaign contribution to the justice? Why now? Seems to be one logical inference only: because they were hoping It would have an effect."
Friedman thinks Clark may have violated the state's Code of Judicial Conduct:
"What changed?" Friedman asks. "Why did he first vote to rehear the case and then not to rehear the case? Does it lead a reasonable person to have some doubt about the judge's independence, integrity or impartiality? Seems to me, the answer to that is obvious."
A Supreme Court spokesperson tells FOX 8 News that Clark did not switch his vote, but simply followed court rules which say, in cases like this, an application for a rehearing will not be considered. But CCST did not only ask for a rehearing; it also appealed the prior ruling.
We asked the Supreme Court, if that is the policy, why did some judges vote against it, wanting to grant CCST a new hearing? We never received a response.
The court spokesperson also told us, "Judges are prohibited from directly accepting campaign contributions; in accordance with the code of judicial conduct, judges must establish campaign committees to accept contributions. Thus, although not prohibited, many times, judges are not even aware of the identities of their contributors."
We ask Friedman whether a judge should be expected to know everyone that is donating to your campaign. "Of course you should - the names and how much - so you can avoid a problem like this," he says.
State Ethics Administration records show Clark, from the Monroe area, has used his campaign money to pay for consultants, for a $1,200 mileage reimbursement and for a $91 monthly cellphone bill.
"If you ask judges - and I happened to ask a few of my friends who are judges - they all told me the same story," Friedman recalls. "If this had happened to them, they would have immediately had a hearing in front of the parties. And they would have asked the party who did not give the money, 'I want you to know that I received a campaign contribution of 'X' from the lawyer and from the party. I am prepared to recuse myself if you would like me to do so. It's totally up to you. I don't believe it will affect my judgment but, if you do, I will recuse myself.'"
For its part, the law firm sent us this statement in response to our questions about its contribution:
Helis did not respond to our requests for comment on this story.
Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany offered this brief, written statement:
In a broader sense, CCST and the parish ended up winning their case - Helis announced Tuesday it would not frack in St. Tammany:
"Helis has determined that the prospect lacks appropriate commercial viability so the company will not pursue the project any further," said Helis Oil & Gas spokesman Greg Beuerman in a written statement. "Helis intends to permanently abandon the well and secure the site in accordance with regulatory requirements and its leases."
Our legal observer still has questions, though, for one of the state's most powerful judges - who, he thinks, needs to be more transparent about how his campaign contributions may intersect cases inside the courtroom.
"It doesn't matter to me if it's $2,000, $200 or 25 cents," Friedman says. "It's the principle of the thing. They should not be accepting anything of value, as the rules say, when it could - to a reasonable person - impact the public's confidence in the judge's impartiality. It's the appearance - they have to be pure as the driven snow, in terms of the public. What kind of confidence can the public have if judges are taking contributions from people who are appearing in their court, at the moment they made the contribution?"