On January 28, 2022, the Louisiana Supreme Court held in a 4-3 split decision that a city judge could remain in office despite exceeding the age limit set by the Louisiana Constitution. See In re Judge Johnell M. Matthews, No. 2021-O-01078 (La. Jan. 28, 2022). The Court justified its decision by citing to the unique circumstances of the election, including delays in the date of the election due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Justice Piper Griffin, writing for the majority, emphasized that the court’s decision “is limited to the individualized circumstances surrounding this case and election.” Id. at 6.
The Louisiana Supreme Court recounted the facts as follows:
On January 8, 2020, Judge Matthews qualified for the special election to fill the vacancy of Division “C” of the Baton Rouge City Court. The primary election was scheduled for April 4, 2020 with a runoff election on May 9, 2020, if necessary. Due to the unprecedented COVID-19 global pandemic and the rising cases within the State of Louisiana, the governor declared a State of Emergency and issued two proclamations that postponed the special election twice….The subsequent proclamation reset the primary and general elections to July 11, 2020 and August 15, 2020, respectively.
Id. at 1-2.
On August 15, 2020, Judge Matthews won the election. However, Judge Matthews had turned 70 years old during the interim, on June 7, 2020. As such, Judge Matthews was 70 years old by the time of her election and assumption of judicial office.
The issue before the Louisiana Supreme Court was whether it was appropriate to discipline and remove from office a city court judge who was elected to judicial office after turning 70 years old.
The Louisiana Constitution provides that “a judge shall not remain in office beyond his seventieth birthday.” See La. Const. art V, § 23(B). Section 23(B) provides only one exception to the judge’s mandatory requirement rule: “A judge who attains seventy years of age while serving a term of office shall be allowed to complete that term of office.” Id.
The Judiciary Commission sought to remove Judge Matthews from office arguing that she was constitutionally barred from remaining in office having already reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 prior to the beginning of her term. The Judiciary Commission did suggest that “a judicially created exception to La. Const. art. V, § 23(B) may be appropriate given the unique circumstances present and that this issue has arisen due to the executive branch’s action in delaying a judicial election.” Id. at 4.
Judge Matthews argued that the Louisiana Supreme Court should neither discipline her or remove her from office because she was under the age of 70 at the time she qualified for candidacy. Id. at 4.
The Court’s Opinion
In a 4-3 decision, a majority of the Louisiana Supreme Court ultimately rejected the Judiciary Commission’s recommendation of discipline, but not for the reasons urged by Judge Matthews. Justice Griffin, writing for the majority, opined that
the plain language of La. Const. art. V, § 25(C) provides that this Court may remove a judge from office based on the recommendation of the Commission. The word “may” is permissive and not mandatory. The Court therefore is not bound to accept the Commission’s recommendation as the language of La. Const. art. V, § 25(C) is discretionary.
Id. at 5. (internal citations omitted). Ultimately, the Court exercised its unfettered discretion over judicial disciplinary matters to permit Judge Matthews to remain in office despite being in violation of the Constitution. Said the Court:
The facts in this case are driven by the pandemic and subsequent proclamations issued by the governor which delayed the elections. But for these delays, Judge Matthews would have taken office prior to attaining the age of seventy…For the foregoing reasons, the Commission’s recommendation is rejected and no discipline is imposed. We emphasize that this decision is limited to the individualized circumstances surrounding this case and election.
Id. at 5-6.
The majority’s decision in Matthews drew three strong dissenting opinions from members of the Court. Chief Justice Weimer criticized the majority for “enabling” Judge Matthews to remain in office in violation of the state Constitution. According to Chief Justice Weimer, the Court should not expand the meaning of the word “may” to empower the Court to ignore the plain language of the Louisiana Constitution. See In re Judge Johnell M. Matthews, No. 2021-O-01078 at 2-3 (La. Jan. 28, 2022) (Weimer, J. dissenting). Justice Crain and Justice McCallum also dissented to emphasize their disagreement with the majority’s decision to ignore the Louisiana Constitution.
In full disclosure, our firm Louisiana Legal Ethics, LLC, formed part of the team which represented Judge Matthews in these proceedings. And, in my opinion, the Court got it right. The Court’s affirmation and utilization of its broad discretionary power to decline to discipline and remove a judge from office marks a significant development in judicial discipline jurisprudence. There are some cases, including this one, where the judge’s conduct just does not warrant discipline.