In The News › CONAWAY: A More Accessible and Transparent Judiciary Will Improve the Louisiana Legal Climate

Mar 19, 2015


Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish, Statewide

CONAWAY: A More Accessible and Transparent Judiciary Will Improve the Louisiana Legal Climate

By Camille Conaway

March 19, 2015

Lawsuits cost Americans an estimated $865 billion every year – as much as $10,000 for each American family – and those costs are on the rise. Excessive litigation is a particular problem in Louisiana, where three times the number of lawsuits are filed every year as compared to a state like Alabama, for example. Economists estimate an improved legal climate would save businesses in Louisiana as much as $1.1 billion in lawsuit costs and increase employment as well.

For the first time in nearly two decades, the Legislature took significant steps in 2014 to improve the state’s legal climate and reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits and the associated costs to the community. Legislation to prohibit the state’s use of contingency fee contracts, strengthen legacy lawsuit reforms, and discourage the unauthorized lawsuit of an aggressive levee board brought immediate results on one national ranking, dropping Louisiana from #2 on the Judicial Hellholes list to #7. That’s progress, but there is clearly more work to do.

Opponents to changing the legal climate frequently argue that the courts are over-burdened, it is difficult to seat juries, and trials are expensive. However, little data or evidence is offered to support these arguments. The fact is Louisiana has nearly double the national median number of judges per capita. The fact is that Louisiana’s judges are middle of the pack nationally for their total criminal and civil caseload, and there are more district judges in Louisiana (236) than there were civil jury trials (235) in 2012. The fact is that state law requires the party requesting a jury trial to pay all costs associated with that trial, including juror fees, expenses, and other costs for the clerk of court and the sheriff.

In the course of this research, LABI found that information on the operations of Louisiana courts is difficult to find, a stark contrast from state agencies. This experience is confirmed by the State Integrity Index, which gave Louisiana an F grade for judicial accountability. Unlike the other branches of government, where hundreds of hours of public hearings and debate take place before and after enactment of the annual state budget, the judiciary does not engage the public in making its budget request. Even after the fact, neither revenue sources nor expenditures are easily accessible, unlike for example, the online contract database run by the State of Louisiana known as LaTrac. Centralized information on items of interest to the public such as court decisions or even civil filing fees does not appear to be compiled or available online on a consistent basis in district courts. An independent national review notes Louisiana has no process in law to evaluate the performance of judges, who also have a blanket statutory exemption from the Louisiana Code of Governmental Ethics.

The principle of judicial independence as a separate branch of government is an important and historic American tenet. However, independence and accountability can be promoted simultaneously. The absence of very basic information on court operations and budgeting has required Herculean efforts by civil society, such as Court Watch NOLA’s 100 volunteers who made 2,647 separate courtroom observations in 2013 alone just to secure such data as the number of days to resolve a case. More recently, the non-profit Bureau of Governmental Research was denied a public records request to state courts for documents related to the work of a legislatively created committee that studied the efficiency of the Louisiana judiciary, but held only two public hearings in three years and ultimately recommended no changes.

There is much the judicial branch could do in Louisiana to improve access for its citizens and provide basic data on court operations and budgeting on parity with other governmental agencies. In 2015, LABI will urge the Legislature to consider the following legislation to make the Louisiana legal system more accessible and transparent:

  • Develop and publicize an annual report with information on the courts’ prior year budgets, expenditures, and staffing;
  • Create an online database for judicial contracts; and
  • Codify the personal financial disclosure requirements for judges that currently exist only in rules and place the completed statements online for public viewing.

The new laws passed in the 2014 session represent an important start to a series of changes that must be made to Louisiana’s plaintiff-friendly laws, legal infrastructure, and judicial culture. Additional judicial transparency is the next step, as Louisiana moves along the path toward an improved legal climate for businesses and citizens alike.

Camille Conaway is the Vice-President of Policy and Research at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), where she leads public policy analysis, development, and research across a range of issues important to LABI and the business community.

Mar 19, 2015


Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish, Statewide

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