Louisiana Supreme Court - 400 Royal St., New Orleans, LA 70130 | Tel: 504-310-2300 Hon. Bernette J. Johnson. Chief Justice.  John Tarlton Olivier., Clerk of Court.  Sandra A. Vujnovich. Judicial Administrator
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2005 Press Releases

(504) 310-2590

 MAY 3, 2005





  Good Afternoon,

            On behalf of the Louisiana Supreme Court, thank you for this opportunity to speak to you again on the State of our Judiciary.  With me today for the biennial trek for our Court are Justice Kitty Kimball of New Roads, Justice Bernette Johnson of New Orleans, Justice Jeffrey Victory of Shreveport, Justice Jeannette Theriot Knoll of Marksville, and Justice John L. Weimer from Thibodaux.   Unfortunately, Justice Chet D. Traylor of  Winnsboro could not be with us this afternoon.

             It is an honor to appear before you again.  I sincerely appreciate the courtesies shown by the President, the Speaker, and all of you for scheduling this address and for being here today.  As I look around the chamber of this assembly, I see many friends of longstanding who have given invaluable assistance to the judiciary,  and friendship to me personally, during the times that my duties as Chief Justice  have brought me to this building.  Earlier this month, I marked my 15 th year as Chief Justice and I thank each of you for your courtesy and friendship.

             Of course, I am saddened as I look around this room that several of my friends, and your colleagues, are no longer with us, including the  incomparable  John Hainkel.   On behalf of the Justices, I offer our sincerest condolences on the untimely loss of Senator Hainkel, Senator Ronald C. Bean, and Representative Charles I. Hudson.

  Independent Judiciary:

            One of the goals during my tenure as Chief Justice has been to improve communications between the judicial and legislative branches of government.  One such step has been holding these State of the Judiciary addresses, during which the Justices travel to Baton Rouge to visit with you.  I believe underlying these visits is a mutual respect for our respective branches of government, and I thank you for that.  I also thank you for the respect, courtesy and cooperation that you show Justice Kitty Kimball and me, and our staff, every year, upon presentation of the judicial branch budget requests, and sometimes other legislation that affects the judiciary.

             This mutual respect of our two branches is based on a recognition that the Legislature and the Judiciary are two separate, but equal, branches of government.  Our federal and state constitutions enshrine this separate yet equal principle.  This  principle is meaningless and ineffective without maintenance of an independent judiciary.  Although a judge in our state may be elected, his or her allegiance is owed to the Louisiana Constitution and to the rule of law,  not to the rule of the majority.  It is the duty and the responsibility of each judge in this state to apply the constitution and laws to the facts before him or her, without fear or favor.  A judge cannot be partisan, despite which way political winds may be blowing.  An independent judiciary is a hallmark of our democracy, and we should take whatever steps are necessary to respect and preserve this independence.

Law Day 2005:

            One of the key elements in a functioning judiciary is our jury system.  To commemorate Law Day 2005, this first week in May has been designated "National Juror Appreciation Week", a time to honor and celebrate jurors and the jury system.  The American Bar Association, the Conference of Chief Justices, and courts throughout the country are devoting special time to recognize the contributions of jurors and to promote jury service.  Your Supreme Court has adopted a resolution urging all state courts to take steps to recognize Law Day 2005 and to plan activities celebrating our jury system.  At the Supreme Court, we are offering resources for these activities, and have scheduled several events such as speaker presentations and visiting student tours of the Courthouse.

            If any of you has served on a jury, let me thank you.  If not, if, and when, you get called for jury duty, I urge you to serve.   Not only would you be fulfilling the highest responsibility of citizenship and making our system of justice a reality, I guarantee you an educational and eye-opening experience and an unparalleled view into the workings of our criminal or civil legal systems.

New Courthouse:

            For the first time since I began appearing  before this August body, or one or more of your committees, I am pleased to announce that the Louisiana Supreme Court is occupying the newly renovated Supreme Court building at 400 Royal Street, nearing the end of its first year of occupancy.  I cannot thank you enough for your diligence and support in making our move to the renovated courthouse possible.  As you know, the new courthouse houses not only the Louisiana Supreme Court, but also the Court of Appeal - Fourth Circuit,  the Louisiana Law Library, the Judicial Administrator's Office, an office for the Attorney General, and office space for the Executive Branch.  And needless to say, we have a Formal Conference Room and other facilities available for your use in the event you choose to schedule a Committee or other meeting at 400 Royal Street.

               I was delighted that many of you were able to be with us at our dedication ceremonies last Fall.  In addition to the Legislators who were in attendance, dignitaries from across the state who participated included Governor Kathleen Blanco, Lt. Governor Mitchell Landrieu, Attorney General Charles Foti, Jr., and Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc.  The highlight of the ceremony was the Keynote Address by United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. 

               Early next year, we will host the mid-year meeting of the Conference of Chief Justices, and we are looking forward to showing the building to our colleagues from across the country.  If you have not visited the building, I urge you to do so to see the fruits of your endeavors.

             In compliance with the spirit and the letter of the legislation which designated the square of property on which the Courthouse sits as "Judge Fred J. Cassibry Square," we have seen to the manufacture of the appropriate markers, which will be installed at two opposite corners of the  city block.   Now that we have moved into the building, the Courthouse has been formally dedicated, and landscaping is nearly complete, we have scheduled the square dedication ceremony for this October.

  Judicial Council:

            This legislative session has been the second occasion where our Judicial Council, at your request, has reviewed legislation proposing new court costs to ascertain if such imposition of additional court costs or fees appropriately affects court operations.  We believe that it is not our function to approve or reject proposed legislative initiatives  or  policies, but rather, to focus on the impact on the courts of  legislation that imposes  court costs and fees upon litigants, the users of the court system.  Such legislation directly affects the operation of, and access to,  the court system.  We hope to perform this job consistent with the purpose of the legislation that entrusted the Judicial  Council with these duties, and hope that you will accept the recommendations of the Judicial Council in the vein that this counsel and advice is given. 

             If you feel that the Judicial Council's involvement in this process is more intrusive on your prerogative as legislators than it should be, we stand ready to respond to your legislative call,  just as we are attempting to do in accordance with the extant legislation.  I know the Judicial Council can be of assistance in this area, and I do believe that, as instituted, the system serves a plausible purpose, both for the legislative and the judicial branches of government.

  Judicial pay:

            I also wish to thank the legislature in advance for its consideration at this session, or as soon as is practically possible, of the need for higher levels of judicial pay.    I fully realize that at this legislative session there are many other fiscal matters of great importance to consider and resolve.   However, do remember that adequate pay and financial security are two factors that contribute greatly to assuring a fair, impartial, and independent judiciary. 


            Since my last address two years ago, the Court has continued its work to improve the administration of justice in our state.  One such area is juvenile justice reform, where the level of inter-branch and inter-agency collaboration has been unprecedented, and I thank you for your continuing investment in the at-risk children and families in this State.   Locally, our judges are taking an active part in the development of their local Family and Youth Planning Boards, and many are effectively using court-based programs for children and families such as the FINS (Families in Need of Services), CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), and  Drug Court  programs administered by the Supreme Court. The cost-effectiveness of such community-based programs is demonstrable.  For example, in the last year, screened, trained, and supervised community CASA volunteers contributed the equivalent of $11.2 million dollars of their time, facilitating placement of abused and neglected children by taking them out of state care and placing them into safe and permanent homes.  I am sure the CASA folks at the capital today are available to provide you with additional information. 

             Great strides have been made toward real systemic reform in our juvenile justice system, and I encourage you to maintain the momentum.  As demands on your time and attention are many during this session, I would specifically ask for your attention to, and support for, these efforts that directly impact the future of our children.

              You will soon be receiving a copy of our 2004 Annual Report,  providing more detailed information on these, and many other, judicial reforms.

  Indigent Defense:

            This session, you will also be asked to consider legislation affecting our system of funding legal services for citizens charged with a crime but unable to pay for their own lawyers and legal defense.  In fact, hearings have already begun on proposed legislation.  Today, I ask you for your continued assistance in reinforcing and actualizing one of the most important rights provided to citizens by our federal and state constitutions - the right to counsel. 

             Over forty years ago, in the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright,   the United States Supreme Court stated: " The right of one charged with crime, to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. "  In this case, the Court ruled that the right to counsel for those unable to afford one is a fundamental part of due process in America.  The Court held that the U.S. Constitution guarantees that no person shall be denied his life or liberty, without the guiding hand of effective counsel at every stage of criminal proceedings, simply because he is too poor to hire a competent lawyer.  Soon after the Gideon decision, the Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1974 enshrined the right to counsel in Article 1, section 13, making this right to counsel a state constitutional right, as well as federal.    The right to counsel that was solidified in Gideon   in part evolved out of the law's understanding that wrongful convictions destroy  trust in the system; and the law is best served when we get the process right, from the start.

             Our federal and state constitutions provide that people without financial means should not be put in jail without due process of law.  In this case, due process means the affording of effective assistance of counsel.  It falls upon you as Legislators to speak for the State in fulfilling these constitutional obligations.   It is never a popular political position to spend money on what some people see as a "social program for criminals."  Viewed in a different light, however, our state and federal constitutions impose a constraint on the manner in which the State can deny a person his  freedom.   I will not comment on this bifurcated perception, but I will tell you that the Louisiana Supreme Court is charged with administering a judicial system that comports with these constitutional provisions.  So when we are asked to review the propriety of a criminal prosecution where the defendant does not have the financial means to afford counsel, and this constitutional right has been abridged, we cannot dodge the responsibility of enforcing the constitution.

            We were faced with this issue in the early 1990s, and as a result, following the principles enunciated in Gideon v. Wainwright , we handed down the cases of State v. Peart and State v. Wigley , in which we determined that indigents were receiving assistance of counsel not sufficiently effective to meet constitutional standards.  In an attempt to resolve this problem, with the cooperation of all three branches of government, in 1994, the Supreme Court established by rule a temporary statewide Louisiana Indigent Defender Board.   Initial legislative funding for this Board was $7.5 million.  As planned, in 1998, the Supreme Court relinquished jurisdiction over the Board, at which time it was transferred to the Executive Branch, with the creation of the Louisiana Indigent Defense Assistance Board (LIDAB).


              Despite inflation and increases in the volume of criminal cases, and some minor monetary increases over time, the monies allocated to indigent defense remained fairly static over the years.  Against this background, our Court was faced with the recent cases of State v. Citizen and State v. Tonguis, two consolidated capital cases.  In an opinion authored by Justice Jeffrey Victory, he  concluded  for the Court that the present indigent defense system is terribly flawed.  While it is not within the purview of the Court to direct how much money should be appropriated by you on indigent defense, providing adequate funding is clearly a legislative responsibility.  In this opinion, we recognized that until you, the legislature, take remedial action, we must address the immediate problems of defendants in  forthcoming  capital prosecutions securing constitutionally adequate counsel, in a constitutionally and statutorily required timely manner.  And therefore, we decreed that unless adequate funds are available in a manner authorized by law, upon motion of the defendants the trial judge may halt the prosecution in these cases until adequate funds become available to provide for these indigent defendants' constitutionally protected right to counsel.

             This recent opinion does not unfairly put the courts in the position of siding with the defense.  The cases simply recognize the fact that the courts, as guardians of a fair and equitable process, must not let the state take a person's liberty without due process.

             We have together taken steps in the past to make the right to counsel real and meaningful in Louisiana.  Unfortunately, these efforts have not proven to be adequate.   Much more needs to be done. The need for further action has been well articulated by the Task Force on Indigent Defense Services that you, the Louisiana Legislature, created one year ago, and which is chaired by Senator Lydia Jackson. 

             I understand that the Task Force has submitted two bills for your consideration, and that hearings on these bills are underway.  I also am aware that there are differences of opinion on these bills.  People may differ in their view of how to fix the system, and how the LIDAB Board should be structured. I respect such differences.  However, I would caution that such differences of opinion should not be allowed to thwart this unique - and necessary   -  opportunity to fix our ailing indigent defense system, - a system that represents eight out of ten defendants in this state - and  to put the State on the correct path to complying reasonably with its constitutional duty.

              I am also here to ask you and the Task Force to explore  ways to reduce the need for indigent defense and, therefore, to reduce its costs, while still protecting the public.  This can be done, in my opinion, in several ways, such as developing more strategies for diverting cases from the formal system, through early intervention juvenile diversion programs, or through such adult diversionary strategies as the expanded use of drug courts, shoplifting  programs, traffic and misdemeanor probation programs, mental health perspectives in courts, and other forms of adult diversion.  Further, strategies should be explored to reduce the number of re-trials made necessary by faulty police line-up and photo spread procedures, inappropriate of out-moded interrogation procedures, unaccredited and under-funded forensic laboratories, and other sources of wrongful conviction.  (As an aside, the advent of DNA testing as a reliable forensic tool has produced over the past few years in this country the release of upwards of 200 persons convicted of serious crimes.)

             Several years ago, I appeared before you and urged a call to action to address the deplorable state of our juvenile justice system.  You responded, quickly and effectively, and our state is on its way to real juvenile justice reform.  I ask you to do the same with indigent defense.  We owe it to our citizens, especially to the victims of crime, to do what we can to insure that convictions are obtained that will survive the appellate process and constitutional challenge.

             As a Supreme Court Justice, I must be an advocate of compliance with the mandates of our state and federal constitutions, and therefore, I admonish you, simply, to do the right thing.  Provide for a workable  and adequately funded indigent defense system, so that another victim does not have to go through the agony of an overturned conviction and repeat of grueling trial testimony, or so that an innocent person is spared the ordeal of an unjust conviction and punishment.  This is just one of your many challenges, as well as your responsibility.  Let us show the people that our State is more than up to that challenge.


            In conclusion, let me again say what an honor and privilege it is to be before you today.   We greatly appreciate your courtesies.   On behalf of the state judiciary, thank you  President Hines, Speaker Salter, and all of you, the dedicated members of our state Legislature, for opening your chamber to us today, for your attention to my remarks, and for your unfailing devotion to the people of Louisiana.

            Thank you.

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