State Supreme Court Justice Jeff Hughes Wins Round in Libel Suit Against Advocate

Louisiana Supreme Court Associate Justice Jeff Hughes was the center of attention at the Baton Rouge Advocate for more than a year.  Half a dozen major front-page articles held up the judge as the epitome of unethical behavior on the bench.  Another two dozen stories mentioned him as an example of judges who avoid being held accountable for their misbehavior.

However, the Advocate hasn’t written much about Justice Hughes lately. On July 20, 2020, the paper reported that he had filed a libel suit against the Advocate in connection with the stories.

Since then, what the Advocate hasn’t reported is that Justice Hughes has scored a major victory in that suit. Last month, the Advocate asked for a hearing on a Special Motion to Strike, which would have thrown the Justice out of court. However, District Judge Kevin Kimball ruled against the Advocate and for Justice Hughes.

Judge Kimball held that Hughes “has established a probability of success on his case.” The judge ordered the Advocate to pay $5,000 toward Hughes’ attorney fees.  He also signed a Partial Final Judgment in the case.  

Justice Hughes has asked for a jury in the case, indicating that he will seek more than $50,000 in damages.  The preliminary judgment of the court that Hughes has a probability of success and that the district judge granted a Partial Final Judgment can be presented to the jury at the trial on the merits.

The libel suit primarily attacks an editorial by the Advocate, which said that back in 1998, Hughes dated an attorney for a party before his court.  At the time, Hughes was single and a district judge.  

The charge was false, as demonstrated by court documents and a prior news article by the Advocate.  At no time did then-District Judge Hughes hear a case while he was dating one of the parties’ attorneys, nor did he have a conflict of interest over the matter.

After the editorial ran in the Advocate, Hughes met with the editors and reporters of the Advocate to request a retraction.  

He said the Advocate had in its possession at that time court documents proving the charge was false and that an Advocate article had previously admitted it was false.  However, he said, the Advocate refused to retract the editorial but rather continued to publish articles accusing him of unspecified unethical behavior.

The case is being tried under the terms of Louisiana’s so-called “Anti-SLAPP” legislation, which was intended to provide special protection for the media.  SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Particiation. It provides that in order to sue for defamation a public figure must prove actual malice.  

Hughes said that the fact the newspaper knew he did not have a personal relationship with an attorney before his court, had documentation that it was false, and had even published in a news article that it was false proves malice.  He said the failure of the newspaper to publish a retraction after being reminded of the facts in the case shows even greater malice.

The justice said his reputation has been greatly damaged by the newspaper. He quoted Shakespeare that a man’s reputation is the jewel of his soul. He who steals my purse steals nothing, but he who steals my reputation gains nothing for himself but makes me poor indeed.

The Advocate has appealed Judge Kimball’s ruling and Partial Final Judgment.  If the appeal is decided in Hughes’ favor, the case could be tried before a jury in Kimball’s court.

Hughes is the first and only Republican ever elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court from the Baton Rouge area.

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