Louisiana: Judicial Hellhole
December’s arrival means that it is time to take stock of the year that was. “Best of” and “Worst of” lists for movies, albums, and books are compiled, and the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) releases its annual list of Judicial Hellholes. The ATRA is a national grassroots organization dedicated to reforming the civil justice system.
The Bayou State ranks seventh on this year’s list. Louisiana’s toxic legal climate landed the state on ATRA’s Everlasting Judicial Hellholes list released last December.
ATRA cited several factors justifying the state’s rank on its Hellholes list: Louisiana’s ongoing, meritless coastal litigation, staged accidents with big rigs in New Orleans, COVID-19 insurance coverage lawsuits expanding liability, judicial misconduct, and a lack of transparency in addressing complaints against judges, and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on trial lawyer advertising all contribute to a dysfunctional justice system.
While much of the focus of the cost of lawsuit abuse has been on sky-high insurance premiums, Louisianans pay a high price for the state’s legal climate in other ways as well. A 2019 study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform reported that 89 percent of senior business executives surveyed said a state’s lawsuit environment impacts their company’s decisions about where to locate or do business. As a result, Louisiana loses 46,302 jobs each year, and residents pay an annual “tort tax” of $1,020.57 per person.
Lawsuit abuse may also create conditions in which the Constitutional rights of criminal defendants are violated. The U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to a speedy trial. Article 701 of the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure reaffirms this guarantee. It provides time periods during which the state must indict the defendant, set his or her matter for arraignment, and start the trial. The state’s fertile ground for trial lawyers means that court dockets are clogged, and it takes longer for anyone to get their day in court. Fortunately, House Resolution 30, passed during the 2022 legislative session, created the Judicial Structure Task Force, which is tasked with studying the caseload data of the state’s district and appellate courts.
Despite the bleak picture painted by ATRA’s report, not all the news is bad. The report identifies some reforms that could help improve the state’s legal climate. Last year, the Louisiana Supreme Court changed its rules to increase accountability for judges facing allegations of misconduct. Perhaps a reform-minded legislature and a new governor in 2024 will continue the work necessary to improve our judicial climate and escape the Judicial Hellholes’ dumpster fire.