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Louisiana’s top business group spearheads judicial reform

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By William Patrick | The Center Square

(The Center Square) – The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry is spearheading an effort to reform Louisiana’s judicial system, saying it lacks transparency and operates under costly, outdated rules.

LABI represents more than 2,000 Louisiana employers and serves as the state chapter of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. The group is using its influence to present a case for “modernization” amid the state’s decennial redistricting process and ahead of the 2022 legislative session.

In a four-part series delving into key areas of the complex issue, the group contends Louisiana’s judiciary lacks accountability standards that apply to the executive and legislative branches of state government. The result often is confusion, report authors said.

“Unless we find ourselves in court, most of us have very little knowledge of how justice is administered in Louisiana, be it effective or not,” they said.

The LABI report, based on two years of research, cited several legislative attempts since 2008 to reform the system that either failed or advanced in watered-down, piecemeal fashion, such as financial disclosures for state judges.

After a jurisdictional battle between then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, an allied Legislature and the state judiciary over a judicial ethics reform package, the Louisiana Supreme Court issued a compromise ruling that eventually led to equivalent financial disclosures for judges.

“But unlike legislative disclosures, this information was not easily accessible, and it took 12 years and an extensive amount of legislative and public pressure to get the information available online,” the report said.

“Incidentally, the Supreme Court’s move towards greater transparency in financial disclosures came just a month after it also made changes to the public’s access of judicial misconduct proceedings – a process that has long been cloaked in secrecy,” report authors added.

Another referenced issue is the widely recognized problem of disparate courts and offices within the state justice system, which are funded through fines, fees, surcharges and other court-related costs levied against legal system participants – often indebting those who can least afford to pay.

The issue is being reviewed by the Louisiana Commission on Justice Funding, a 30-member bipartisan body tasked with developing reform recommendations for the state Legislature by Feb. 1.

The commission was founded in 2019 but ran into problems attempting to ascertain funding amounts and sources. The Louisiana Legislative Auditor, a state financial oversight entity, also was unable to track down funding information initially, requiring the Legislature to compel justice system entities to produce funding data.

Commission chair Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, said during a recent commission meeting, “We learned we didn’t have the ability to track fines and fees throughout the entire state.” That information is now due by the end of the year.

LABI said many associated transparency, funding and accountability shortcomings could be remedied by instituting a “unified” electronic filing, docketing and court records system, which many states have.

Failing to modernize through technology, LABI said, would hamstring public accountability efforts administratively and financially.

“This means we risk having 42 different operating systems for our district courts,” LABI concluded. “Even worse – because each parish elects its own clerk of court to manage filing, recordation and access to public documents, even though many judicial districts span across multiple parishes, we could have as many as 64 different systems.”

A remaining concern raised in the report deals with Louisiana’s judicial district lines, which only were partially addressed in 1990 and since have gone mostly unchanged despite significant intrastate population shifts.

The Louisiana Constitution requires the state Legislature to redraw district lines for congressional seats, legislators, Public Service Commissioners and members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education – the state’s top school board – after the once-a-decade federal census. That redistricting process is underway.

The constitution does not, however, contain a census requirement for judicial districts. Instead, the report notes, the Legislature is granted the authority to amend judicial districts and change the number of judges, which it has rarely if ever done.

“The boundary lines for Louisiana’s 42 district courts and five courts of appeal have never been comprehensively redrawn, and the Supreme Court districts are still based on census data from 1990,” the report said.

The authors suggested the lack of legislative responsiveness sometimes has allowed “local political influence” to come before “practicality and fairness,” an issue LABI said could be lessened with increased justice system transparency and consistent ethical standards.

“The judiciary is a critical branch of government that should be held to the same standards of transparency and accountability to the public as the other two branches,” the report concluded.

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