Election meddling

In unrelated cases, 3 judicial officers were recently sanctioned for interfering in judicial elections in which they were not candidates.

In In re Hughes, 319 So. 3d 839 (Louisiana 2021), accepting a motion for consent discipline, the Louisiana Supreme Court publicly censured one of its members for a meeting with a campaign worker for a candidate for another seat on the Court that interfered with or could have interfered with the relationship between the candidate and the campaign worker.

In fall 2019, there was a run-off election between then-Judge William Crain and then-Judge Hans Liljeberg for Louisiana Supreme Court District 1.  Leading up to the election, Justice Hughes received several telephone calls about the amounts being paid to workers on the Crain campaign.  He reviewed finance reports filed by Crain’s campaign and recognized some of the names on the reports, including Johnny Blount, a former city councilman.

Although he had not seen Blount for several years, the justice went to Blount’s home to discuss the race and specifically the amount of money being paid to campaign workers for the Crain campaign.  During their conversation, the judge told Blount that he believed that Blount could receive more money for his services from the Liljeberg campaign.  The justice left his card with Blount.  Blount got the impression from their conversation that the justice was attempting to get him to change his support from Judge Crain to Judge Liljeberg.

In an affidavit after the meeting, Blount attested that the justice had offered him $5,000 to support the Liljeberg campaign.  In early November, several news articles described Blount’s affidavit and “reported negatively on respondent’s conversation with Mr. Blount and portrayed the judiciary in a negative light.”

Crain won the election.  Justice Crain and Justice Hughes recused themselves from the discipline case.

The Commission and the justice stipulated that his discussion with Blount interfered with “and/or had the potential to interfere with the working relationship between a judicial candidate and one of his campaign workers during a highly contested campaign for a seat on the same Court on which respondent serves.”  However, the parties’ joint submission stated that Blount’s allegation that the justice offered him $5,000 was “unsubstantiated.”

Although the parties stipulated that the justice had intended the conversation to be private, the Court concluded that, “given the unusual nature of the conversation,” the justice’s status as a member of the Court that was the subject of the election, and “the contentious nature of the campaign,” the justice should have foreseen that Blount might publicize their conversation.

The parties stipulated that the justice had failed to uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary, to avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety, to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, to maintain the dignity appropriate to judicial office, and to refrain from unauthorized partisan political activity.

In mitigation, the Court noted that the justice was not acting in his official capacity, believed his conversation was private, expressed remorse, cooperated during the disciplinary proceedings, and accepted responsibility.  In aggravation, the Court emphasized the justice’s position as a member of the Court and his lengthy judicial experience.  The Court stressed “the unique nature of this case,” noting that the justice “is the second most senior justice on this Court, which is constitutionally charged with regulating the judiciary.”

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As “persuasive authority” that a public censure was the appropriate sanction, the Louisiana Supreme Court cited the Florida Supreme Court’s public reprimand of a judge for attempting to dissuade a judicial candidate from running against an incumbent judge and to either run against a different incumbent judge or not to run at all.  Inquiry Concerning Howard, 317 So. 3d 1072 (Florida 2021).  The decision was based on a stipulation.

In early April 2019, the husband of a judicial candidate running against a recently appointed judge was told that he should contact Judge Howard so that Judge Howard could explain why his wife should run against a different judge in the same county who was also up for election in 2020.  The judge’s personal phone number was provided to the candidate’s husband.  When the candidate’s husband called the judge, the judge suggested meeting with the candidate and her husband at an event for the local Boy Scouts.  The candidate was unable to attend, but her husband did. 

At the event, the judge explained that the candidate’s current incumbent opponent enjoyed strong support and recommended that the candidate change races to target a second incumbent.  The judge said that he would like to meet and speak with the candidate herself.

On April 17, the judge met with the candidate and her campaign treasurer/law partner at their law office for 20 to 50 minutes.  The judge asked the candidate why she was running for judge, and, after she responded, he told her that her reasons were not good enough.  The judge repeatedly attempted to persuade the candidate not to run against the first incumbent, whom the judge thought was doing a good job and enjoyed the support of the community, and to switch her candidacy to run against the second incumbent, whom the judge perceived as weaker and more vulnerable.  Alternatively, the judge suggested that the candidate drop her candidacy completely and seek appointment to some future seat through the judicial nominating commission process.  When the candidate asked if the judge would be willing to provide a recommendation if the nominating commission contacted him about her, the judge stated that he does not do that.

The candidate did not relinquish her campaign against the first incumbent.

In mitigation, the Commission noted that the judge accepted full responsibility, cooperated throughout the investigation, and acknowledged that his actions were inappropriate and should not have occurred.  The Commission further noted that the judge has no prior discipline as a judge since his appointment in 2000 and no disciplinary history with The Florida Bar.

Although it approved the stipulation, the Court did not agree with the Commission’s conclusion that the judge’s conduct constituted a public endorsement or opposition to judicial candidates.  The Court did approve the Commission’s other findings that the judge’s conduct “failed to uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary, “created the appearance of impropriety,” “failed to promote public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary,” and “constituted an improper use of the prestige of his position in favor” of the private interest of the first incumbent.

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Approving a stipulation, the Florida Supreme Court publicly reprimanded a judge for (1) contacting individuals to inform them that he was supporting the incumbent judge’s opponent in a judicial election and, in some instances, requesting that the community member support his favored candidate and (2) failing to officially designate a campaign account and treasurer with the Division of Elections before receiving campaign contributions or issuing any funds.  Inquiry Concerning Cupp, 316 So. 3d 675 (Florida 2021).

In the lead up to the 2020 election for Hendry County Court judge, the judge began contacting individuals he knew in the county to inform them that he was supporting the incumbent judge’s opponent because he had heard concerns about the incumbent.  The judge’s preference for the incumbent’s opponent eventually became widely known in the community.  The judge admits that his “unsolicited contact with many influential members of the community, during which he expressed his preference for a certain candidate in a judicial race, and in some instances requested that the community member support his favored candidate” was inappropriate, violated the code of judicial conduct, and “damaged the integrity of the judiciary, by creating the appearance that he was interceding in a judicial election.

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