With a $1.6 billion state budget shortfall to address, there is no question that lawmakers are primarily focused on fiscal issues as the 2015 Louisiana Legislative Session starts out.

The short session, which opened last week and must conclude by June 11th, will be dominated by debate over taxes and spending cuts as legislators look for creative ways to balance the budget. Emotionally charged discussions over controversial issues such as gay rights, marijuana and Common Core educational standards are also generating a lot of buzz around the Capitol and will undoubtedly generate a lot of headlines in the coming months. Waiting in the background for now, however, is a wide range of bills that could either expand or reform civil litigation in Louisiana. These issues are not expected to dominate the session, but given their broad implications, they are worth noting.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry will be leading the reform effort with three bills designed to improve judicial transparency in the state. Currently, the judiciary is exempt from posting personal financial disclosure forms online that are required of every other government official in the state—from the governor all the way down to aldermen and police jurors. LABI hopes to change that with the passage of HB 294 by Rep. Stuart Bishop (R-Lafayette), which will allow the public to easily access information online about the assets and liabilities of our elected judges.

Another area of Louisiana’s court system currently shrouded in secrecy is the manner in which our local judges contract for services. From courthouse cleaning to staffing and other professional services, the public has virtually no access to information about how our courts are spending taxpayer money. That’s wrong, and HB 293 by Rep. Taylor Barras (R-New Iberia) would change that by requiring the Louisiana Supreme Court to establish and maintain a searchable online database for judicial contracts. If our courts are adhering to the good government standard that “what you know is more important than who you know,” then they should have no problem with putting this information online.

Along the same lines is HB 698 by Rep. Neil Abramson (D-New Orleans), which would require the Judicial Budgetary Control Board, or a judicial body designated by the Supreme Court, to prepare and submit an annual financial report detailing the expenditures, revenues and employee positions for our courts. It is startling to realize that this basic level of information is not already compiled and made available by the court.

Our judicial system is not supposed to operate in darkness, where dubious behavior can thrive behind closed doors. Therefore, the most effective way to prevent corruption in our courts is to make their activities open and transparent to the people. Transparency and sunshine also help restrain the abuse of judicial power and promote public confidence in the rule of law.

In fact, our Founding Fathers considered the right to access court records so important that they included it in the First Amendment, right along with freedom of speech and religion. The First Amendment gives us the ability to access court filings such as hearing transcripts, copies of lawsuits and motions. Judicial contracts, expenditures and budget documents should be no different. Together, HB 294, HB 293 and HB 698 will help bring in some much-needed sunshine.

Another reform item is HB 136 by Rep. Lance Harris (R- Alexandria), which seeks to eliminate the state’s $50,000 jury trial threshold. A similar bill sponsored by Rep. Ray Garofalo (R- Chalmette) was extensively debated in the state House of Representatives last year, and ultimately failed to pass by just one vote. Major debate on HB 136 is not expected this session, but in an election year, anything can happen.

Freshman Rep. Blake Miguez (R-New Iberia) is also sponsoring HB 706, which would extend the limitation of liability that currently applies to owners of property used for recreational purposes, including public parks, to nonprofit youth organizations that operate youth adventure centers. This commonsense measure represents another small but important step toward improving the state’s legal climate.

On the other side of the debate are a number of legislative threats that seek to expand liability in Louisiana.

Rep. Barbara Norton (D-Shreveport), Rep. Kenny Cox (D-Natchitoches) and Sen. Ed Murray (D-New Orleans) have all filed some version of legislation that has been creatively marketed by national interest groups as “equal pay for women.” Despite the catchy title, this legislation would do nothing to ensure equal pay for equal work. In fact, this legislation would duplicate existing federal law, which already allows all employees, including women, who feel they have been discriminated against through compensation to file a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It would also expand litigation opportunities for personal injury trial lawyers seeking millions of dollars from employers without even having to prove that a business intentionally discriminated against women. Similar legislation has been introduced and easily defeated in previous sessions, but any movement on HB 87, HB 182 and SB 219 would be deeply troubling.

Another bad bill to watch is SB 206 by Sen. Ben Nevers (D-Bogalusa), who chairs the powerful Sen. Judiciary A Committee. SB 206 would expand the direct action statute in Louisiana to allow legal action to be brought against the insurer alone when the insured is a small business employing 50 or fewer full-time employees. Louisiana’s existing direct action statute already unnecessarily encourages litigation. SB 206 would simply make a bad situation worse, and it should be stopped.

Throughout the session, LLAW will be tracking all of these measures, and as debate progresses we’ll be sending out e-alerts so you can take action on the bills that are most important to you.

Bills to Watch: 2015 Louisiana Legislative Session

HB 136 by Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria
Summary: Provides with respect to jury trials.
Status: Prefiled; referred to House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure
Learn more: http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/BillInfo.aspx?s=15RS&b=HB136&sbi=y

HB 293 by Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia
Summary: Requires the Supreme Court to establish and maintain a website to post information concerning certain contracts.
Status: Prefiled; referred to House Committee on Judiciary
Learn more: http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/BillInfo.aspx?s=15RS&b=HB293&sbi=y

HB 294 by Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette
Summary: Requires personal financial disclosure by judges and justices of the peace.
Status: Prefiled; referred to House Committee on Judiciary
Learn more: http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/BillInfo.aspx?s=15RS&b=HB294&sbi=y

HB 698 by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans
Summary: Requires the judiciary to prepare an annual financial report.
Status: Prefiled; referred to House Committee on Judiciary
Learn more: http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/BillInfo.aspx?s=15RS&b=HB698&sbi=y

HB 706 by Rep. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia
Summary: Provides a limitation of liability for certain facilities operated by nonprofit youth organizations.
Status: Prefiled; referred to House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure
Learn more: http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/BillInfo.aspx?s=15RS&b=HB706&sbi=y

HB 87 by Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport
Summary: Provides for equal pay for women.
Status: Prefiled; referred to House Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations
Learn more: http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/BillInfo.aspx?i=226568

HB 182 by Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches
Summary: Provides for pay equality regardless of gender.
Status: Prefiled; referred to House Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations
Learn more: http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/BillInfo.aspx?s=15RS&b=HB182&sbi=y

SB 219 by Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans
Summary: Provides for equal pay regardless of sex and prohibits discrimination based on sex.
Status: Prefiled; referred to Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs
Learn more: http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/BillInfo.aspx?s=15RS&b=SB219&sbi=y

SB 206 by Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa
Summary: Provides the option of a right of direct action against the insurer alone when the insured is a small business employing fifty or fewer full-time employees.
This legislation would add to present law an additional instance in which a direct action may be brought against the insurer along for when the insured is a small business employing 50 or fewer full-time employees.
Status: Prefiled; referred to Senate Committee on Judiciary A
Learn more: http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/BillInfo.aspx?s=15RS&b=SB206&sbi=y

Melissa Landry is executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch (LLAW), the state’s leading legal watchdog organization. Since it was formed in 2007, LLAW has grown to nearly 6,000 supporters across the state, representing small business owners, health care providers, retirees, taxpayers and workers and their families. Using community outreach, voter education and grassroots advocacy, LLAW works to raise awareness about the costs and consequences of lawsuit abuse and urge elected officials to bring more balance, fairness and common sense to Louisiana’s civil justice system. To learn more, visit www.LLAW.org.