Stephanie Grace: Independence at stake in appointments

Back when President George W. Bush was still in a position to appoint U.S. Supreme Court justices, “No More Souters” became something of a rallying cry in conservative circles.

The Souter at issue, of course, was Justice David Souter, who, despite his appointment by the first President Bush, turned out to be a reliable vote for the court’s liberal wing. So instead of nominating justices without ideological track records, as his father had done, the son played it safe and chose nominees with overtly conservative sympathies.

These days, you’ve got to wonder whether a similar refrain is circulating in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s inner circle. This time, though, the charge would be “No More Barrys,” and “No More Doodys.”

Barry, of course, is noted author and Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East Vice President John Barry, the most vocal proponent of the board’s controversial lawsuit demanding that 97 oil and gas companies whose activities helped decimate the state’s coast either repair the damage or contribute towards enhanced protection for populated areas. Doody is Tim Doody, the board’s president and another supporter of the suit. Both are serving expired terms and hoping for reappointment to the board. But both appointments, as well as a third looming vacancy and possibly a fourth seat, have to go through Jindal, an adamant critic of the legal filing.

In the past, the committee that selects board nominees has been allowed to forward just one recommendation each for the board’s non-technical positions, which Barry and Doody hold. The letter of the law, though, specifies that there be two nominees per seat, so Jindal is expected to have other options — and to seriously consider taking them.

Garret Graves, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority chairman and the governor’s point person in opposition to the suit, dropped a heavy hint recently as to the administration’s thinking.

“I’m not going to sanitize this thing; we are going to very much scrutinize any nominations that come from the board,” Graves said. “There’s no question that we’re simply not going to tolerate the unconstructive sideshow that has resulted from this board.”

The complicating factor here is that this board was specifically created to be free of the political influence that marked earlier iterations of various parish-level levee boards. The product of one of the area’s most successful post-Katrina reform movements, the board was set up to include technical experts and to bar members with conflicting interests or loyalties. Barry insists that its official independence entitles the board to sue without the administration’s permission, an interpretation that Jindal disputes. Regardless, replacing board members is just one of several ways Jindal and the Legislature can try to kill the suit.

Businessman and nominating committee chair Jay Lapeyre, one of the reformers who pushed for independent regional levee boards, predicted that the suit would be “a big issue” during the upcoming process. “I can’t tell you the committee’s view or how that dialogue will develop,” he said, but “I’m highly confident the committee will try to look at all the candidates and chose who they consider best.”

If the governor does move to replace Barry and Doody with nominees who don’t support the suit, it would fit what’s become something of an administration m.o. As Jindal watchers have been noting for some time now, he’s really not a big fan of the whole independence thing.

We’ve seen this at LSU, where Jindal-backed board members have purged a number of high-profile skeptics of policies such as the privatization of the old Charity Hospital system. We’ve seen it in the Legislature, where wayward lawmakers have been known to lose desirable committee appointments.

We’re even starting to see it outside of government, at the hugely influential Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

LABI has generally been in sync with Jindal’s priorities, but last spring, retiring president Dan Juneau helped quash the governor’s ambitious proposal to eliminate the state income tax and raise other levies to make up the difference. Now, after what was apparently a serious behind-the-scenes lobbying effort, former Jindal chief of staff Stephen Waguespack has the inside track to succeed him, according to John Maginnis, publisher of LaPolitics.com. Candidates who didn’t make the nominating committee’s cut include former House Speaker Jim Tucker, who showed a pesky independent streak during his days in the Legislature’s leadership. If Jindal’s heavy-handed approach towards those who don’t fall in line extends to the levee authority — or if future members must pass some form of litmus or loyalty test — it will come at a price.

Lawsuit aside, the current board has won kudos from its original architects for professionalism and a single-minded focus on flood protection. If we lose the Barrys, the Doodys, and those like them, we risk losing some of the reform movement’s hard-fought gains.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.