The judicial system of Louisiana has its roots in the colonial
governments established by France and Spain. Prior to 1712,
there was nothing more than the personal rule of explorers.
In that year, a French charter was granted creating a Superior
Council with both executive and judicial powers. In 1716,
the Council was reorganized and its judicial function was
as a court of last resort for all civil and criminal cases,
without cost to litigants. The Senior Councilor was president
of both the Council and the general trial court for the territory.
Subsequently, when the Western Company became the grantee
of the charter, it was authorized to appoint and remove trial
There were various modifications to the judicial system as
the territory grew and as control over it changed. The most
significant occurred in 1769 when control over the territory
passed to Spain. The Superior Council was replaced by the
Cabildo, composed of executive judicial officers called regidors
and alcaldes. The alcaldes were the judges of general jurisdiction
in New Orleans and were selected by the regidors, who obtained
their offices by purchase. In minor cases, the judgments of
the alcalde were final while appeals were heard by a three
judge court composed of two regidors and the trial alcalde.
Outside of New Orleans, each parish had ecclesiastical judges
and military judges, aided by syndics (a magistrate or assistant
at law) with the military judges exercising general trial
powers. In all case, final authority was held by the Governor-Intendant.
With minor changes, this judicial structure lasted until 1802
when Spain ceded Louisiana to France. The French abolished
the Cabildo but had not set up a new judicial system when,
in 1803, the territory became part the United States.
The first judicial officer appointed by the United States
was W.C.C. Claiborne, the Governor of Mississippi Territory,
who was one of the commissioners appointed to receive the
territory from France. President Thomas Jefferson vested him
with all the powers, including judicial, exercised by the
Governor-General and Intendant under the Spanish regime. Claiborne
directed that the parish officials who had exercised judicial
power under the Spanish were to continue in office. In New
Orleans, to replace the Cabildo, Claiborne established a Court
of Pleas of seven judges with limited civil and criminal jurisdiction.
Claiborne retained original jurisdiction in more serious cases
and appellate jurisdiction over the Court of Pleas.
In 1804, Congress vested the judicial power of the territory
in a three judge Superior Court and in such other courts as
the Legislative Council might create. The Superior Court,
a circuit court, was vested with original jurisdiction in
all criminal cases, exclusive jurisdiction in capital cases,
and original and appellate jurisdiction in civil cases involving
$100 or more. The Superior Court required juries in capital
cases and in other cases upon the request of a party. It held
its first session in November, 1804.
Shortly after this, the Legislative Council divided the territory
into twelve counties, providing for each a county judge with
criminal jurisdiction in all but capital cases and limited
civil jurisdiction. Jury verdicts were conclusive on matters
of fact, rulings on law could be challenged by bills of exception.
The Governor was also authorized to appoint justices of the
peace, who were given final jurisdiction over civil cases
of less than $50 and served as committing magistrates. The
Legislative Council also regulated practice in the courts,
but the Superior Court could adopt rules not inconsistent
with the statutes.
Appeals were often tried before a jury, and even without one
the court reviewed the facts. The territory was divided into
five appellate circuits, with the court sitting in each in
accordance with legislatively set terms.
In 1807, the new popularly elected legislature abolished the
counties and county courts and created a separate court in
each of the nineteen parishes. These courts were vested with
unlimited civil jurisdiction and very limited criminal, with
an appeal to the Superior Court in most cases. Parish judges,
in addition to their judicial duties, also performed executive
This judicial structure remained intact until Louisiana became
a state and adopted the Constitution of 1812. It included
a short judiciary article which created only a Supreme Court,
leaving the structure of the remainder of the court system
to the legislature. The Supreme Court was to be composed of
not less than three and not more than five judges (the term
"justices" was not introduced until the Constitution of 1845)
appointed by the Governor to serve during good behavior. Its
jurisdiction was appellate only, limited to civil cases involving
more than $300. The state was divided into two districts with
the court directed to sit in each at specified times. Judges
were liable to impeachment or removal by the Governor upon
the address of three-fourths of each house of the legislature.
When giving judgment, all judges were required, when possible,
to refer to the law upon which the judgment was based and
in all cases to give the reasons on which the judgment was
The first legislature of Louisiana in 1813 adopted a judiciary
article which required Supreme Court judges, any two of whom
constituted a quorum, to be "learned in the law." Appeals
were heard on a transcript of record rather than the original
record. Judgment was to be given as justice required, and
the court construed the act as giving it power to review the
facts in most cases. The court was required to sit in New
Orleans and Opelousas. It was given supervisory power in aid
of its jurisdiction and was authorized to make rules regulating
procedure not inconsistent with law.
The Supreme Court construed its powers narrowly, holding that
it did not have a general superintending power over lower
courts, and it was only after some hesitation that it held
it could order a lower court to hear a case over which the
latter court had jurisdiction. The court also interpreted
narrowly the requirement that judges give reasons for their
judgments, holding that the judge's statement that he believed
the plaintiff's claim to be correct was sufficient.
The spreading Jacksonian philosophy of government, emphasizing
popular control, resulted in the Constitutional Convention
of 1844, which adopted a judiciary article much more detailed
than its predecessor of 1812. It provided for a Supreme Court
composed of a chief justice and three associate justices appointed
by the Governor for eight year terms. Its jurisdiction was
expanded to include issues of law, criminal cases where a
sentence of death, hard labor, or fine over $300 was imposed,
and cases involving penalties imposed by municipal corporations.
The court was directed to sit in New Orleans and wherever
else the legislature required.
The 1845 Constitution lasted only seven years, being replaced
by the Constitution of 1852 which further emphasized the democratization
of government. The most significant changes were to make all
judges elective and to reinstate the power of the legislature
to create the trial court system. The Supreme Court was enlarged
to five, the chief justice to be elected at large and the
four associate judges from districts, for ten year terms.
No qualifications were fixed for the justices.
All judicial offices, except the office of justice of peace,
were made appointive by the 1864 Constitution. The Convention
of 1864, however, was unwilling to return judges to a life
tenure basis. Supreme Court justices were to serve eight year
terms, and judges of the trial courts were to serve for six
years. Salaries of the Supreme Court justices were raised
one thousand five hundred to seven thousand five hundred dollars
for the chief justice and seven thousand dollars for associate
justices. Judges might now be addressed out of office by a
simple majority of the members elected to each house. The
power which had been given to the legislature in 1852 to restrict
the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in civil cases to questions
of law only was withdrawn by its omission in the Constitution
In 1868, the judiciary article underwent considerable change.
Everything was changed but the title and three articles. The
Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction was revised to extend
to all cases involving a tax, toll, or impost of any kind
or any fine, forfeiture, or penalty imposed by a municipal
corporation, whatever the amount involved, and to all other
cases where the amount involved exceeded five hundred dollars.
No change was made in the Court's appellate jurisdiction in
criminal cases. Supreme Court justices now must be citizens
who had practiced law for five years. In the event of recusation
by one or more justices in any case, district judges might
be called in to sit in their place. The vote required for
legislative redress was increased from a simple majority to
two thirds. The legislature was prohibited from attaching
any nonjudicial duties to the Supreme Court or district court.
Judges of both courts were forbidden to receive any fees or
compensation other than their salaries for any official duties
performed by them.
The end of Reconstruction resulted in the 1879 Constitution,
the first of Louisiana's long constitutions; the judiciary
article alone contains sixty-eight sections. It vested the
judicial power in a Supreme Court, courts of appeal, district
courts, and justices of the peace. The size of the Supreme
Court remained at five, but the justices were appointed by
the Governor. The justices had twelve-year terms, were selected
from four districts, and had to have certain qualifications,
including ten years of law practice. The court's jurisdiction
in civil cases required a $1,000 minimum and extended to divorce
and separation cases, while in criminal cases it remained
limited to legal questions. The court was also given "control
and general supervision over all trial courts," but this was
not interpreted to give the court power to review any case
on issues of law or fact. The Supreme Court was directed to
appoint a reporter to publish its opinions.
To reduce the Supreme Court's caseload, five courts of appeal
were created to hear appeals in cases involving more than
$200 but less than $1,000, with power to review both law and
facts. Each court of appeal was composed of two circuit judges
selected by the legislature for eight year terms.
The 1898 Constitution did not substantially change the 1879
judiciary article. The Supreme Court's jurisdiction was expanded,
the minimum value set at $2,000, and it was permitted to hear
criminal cases in which the penalty exceeded a six-month prison
sentence. In addition, the court was given exclusive original
jurisdiction over the bar as well as power to determine questions
of fact concerning its own jurisdiction. The position of reporter
was abolished and the court was authorized to arrange for
the publication of its opinions. It was prohibited, however,
from printing concurring or dissenting opinions. New Orleans
was fixed as the seat of the court and the senior justice
was made Chief Justice. In 1904 the Constitution was amended
to make the members of the court elective.
The Supreme Court, in part because it was far behind on its
docket, received much attention in the Constitution of 1921.
The court was expanded from five to seven justices, its term
extended by one month, and it was authorized to sit in panels
of three. The terms of the justices were extended to fourteen
years and each was provided with a secretary. In addition
to its supervisory power, the Supreme Court was given power
to shift district judges for temporary duty where needed and
to require reports from lower courts on their judicial business.
In addition to its disciplinary powers over attorneys, it
was also given authority to remove judges.
Court under Judicial Article of 1974 and the Constitutional
Amendment of 1980
In the year 2000, Supreme Court districts were reapportioned
into seven new districts, with one justice elected from each
of the districts.
The senior judge in point of service serves as Chief Justice
under our Constitution. The Chief Justice is the chief administrative
officer of the judicial system of our state, subject to rules
adopted by the court. The court has supervision and control
over all lower courts, administrative and procedural rule-making
powers, and may assign a sitting or retired judge to any court.
It considers applications for writs to review individual cases
decided by the five courts of appeal and considers both criminal
and civil remedial writ applications. The Supreme Court has
exclusive original jurisdiction over disbarment proceedings,
petitions for discipline and removal of judges, and fact questions
involving its own appellate jurisdiction.
Under the 1974 Constitution, the court had direct appellate
jurisdiction over cases in which a law or an ordinance had
been declared unconstitutional and when a defendant
had been convicted of a felony or a fine exceeding five hundred
dollars or imprisonment exceeding six months had actually
been imposed. The Louisiana Constitution was amended in 1980,
effective July 1, 1982, transferring criminal appellate jurisdiction
from the Supreme Court to the courts of appeal, except in
cases where the death penalty has actually been imposed. At
that time the Court of Appeal, Fourth Circuit, the busiest
court of appeal in the state, was split to form the Fourth
and Fifth Circuit Courts of Appeal. The Supreme Court
retained jurisdiction to review judgments of the courts of
appeal in both civil and criminal cases. Under our Constitution
the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in civil cases
extends to both law and facts. In criminal matters, its jurisdiction
extends only to questions of law.