Jim Beam column: Landry reshaping Supreme Court

Published 6:46 am Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Louisiana legislators did some damage to the state’s public records laws at their last session, but they also lost some major battles. Unfortunately, Republican Gov. Jeff Landry, who supported anti-public records bills, isn’t about to give up his crusade against open government.

The governor can’t be too happy about a recent 4-3 Louisiana Supreme Court opinion that said LSU had to turn over animal laboratory records to an animal-rights group. Landry had already made it clear that he wants a  more conservative Supreme Court and opinions like that one is the reason why.

The high court’s latest decision is based on a lawsuit filed by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which The Advocate said in 2019 was seeking veterinary records relating to an LSU professor’s research of wild songbirds.

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LSU rejected the requests, claiming in part that they were the property of a committee that was established by federal law, and were not a public record under state law. The university also said the records didn’t have to be released until the research results are published or patented.

Chief Justice John L. Weimer wrote in a 28-page opinion that the public is “guaranteed access to public records unless a law specifically and unequivocally provides otherwise.” He was joined by Justices Scott Crichton, James Genovese and Piper Griffin.

Justices William Crain, Jay McCallum and Jefferson Hughes dissented.

Scott Sternberg, an attorney who represents media outlets in public records litigation, said occasionally, when denying requests to access information, government agencies cite broad language in state law that doesn’t clearly exempt the records from being disclosed.

“The whole (court) opinion really just kind of kicks that entire idea to the curb,”  Sternberg said.

While that is true, how much longer we can expect to get favorable public record opinions from the Louisiana Supreme Court will depend on whether Landry is successful in his effort to remake the court.

Genovese is one of the four justices who agreed on that recent public records opinion, and Landry has other plans for Justice Genovese. He wants to make Genovese the next president of Northwestern State University.

A native of Opelousas,  Genovese has served on the Supreme Court for eight years. He had been on various levels of state courts since 1975.

Nola.com reported in a July 3 story, “Landry can help a friend land a coveted position, and he can replace Genovese with a more conservative justice on the seven-member court. “

The report said during Genovese’s eight years on the court he has regularly voted against tough-on-crime measures, “a key issue for the governor.” And it added that Cade Cole, an attorney and administrative law judge in Lake Charles is the leading candidate to win Genovese’s seat.

Cole has been endorsed by state Attorney General Liz Murrill, and he is expected to get Landry’s support.

Landry doesn’t like Chief Justice Weimer, according to nola.com, and in its July 3 news report said he tried unsuccessfully to block Weimer’s 2022 re-election when Landry was state attorney general. And when the governor got the Legislature this year to draw a new Supreme Court election map, the district numbers were changed, and a friend benefited.

Bill Stiles, chief deputy for seven years when Landry was attorney general, is now on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal. If the Supreme Court district numbers hadn’t been changed, Stiles would have had to run for the court against Weimer in 2032. However, now he can run for Justice Hughes’ seat because Hughes is term-limited in 2028.

Landry’s legislative agenda is aimed at limiting the public’s access to government information. Luckily, and thanks to good government groups, the worst public records bills he supported at the recent legislative session didn’t make it.

Legislators did pass limits on government information that relates to economic development. And Landry also signed a law that requires that anyone seeking records from the governor’s office must be a Louisiana resident.

Attempts by Landry and members of the current Legislature to curb the public’s access to government information are expected to continue. And if Landry is successful in creating a more conservative Supreme Court, it could join them.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than six decades. Contact him at 337-515-8871 or jim.beam.press@gmail.com.


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