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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2013 Press Releases


(504) 310-2590

 APRIL 9, 2013


TUESDAY, APRIL 9, 2013, 4:30 P.M.


Good afternoon. I am pleased to be with you today, and I thank you for the invitation to address you on the State of the Judiciary. Before I begin, let me first introduce my colleagues that are here in the Chamber - Justice Jeffrey Victory from Shreveport, Justice Jeannette Theriot Knoll from Marksville; Justice John Weimer from Thibodaux; Justice Greg Guidry from Jefferson and St. Tammany; Justice Marcus Clark from Monroe; and our newest Justice, Justice Jefferson Hughes from Denham Springs. We are also pleased to have with us today Dr. Nancy Victory, Justice Victory’s wife, along with several Court staffers.

Justice Hughes was elected from the Fifth Supreme Court District upon the retirement of Chief Justice Kitty Kimball. After serving as a judge for over thirty years, including twenty years on the Supreme Court and four years as Chief Justice, Justice Kimball retired earlier this year to spend more time with her family. During her years at the Court, Justice Kimball was the driving force behind many of the judicial reforms I will mention today. We miss Kitty at the Court, and we wish her well in her retirement.

This is my first opportunity to address this distinguished body. I was honored to become the 25th Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court on February 1, 2013. Many of you accepted the invitation to attend my recent Investiture ceremony, and I thank you for sharing that day with me. Thank you also for the many warm wishes of congratulations and support.

Thank you as well to the legislators who were able to attend our recent ceremony to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the first sitting of the Louisiana Supreme Court. In recognition of this significant event, over the past year, the Court has held oral arguments in the Cabildo, one of the Court’s original homes. We gathered in the Sala Capitular, which was the same room where oral arguments were held almost two centuries ago. We also traveled to Natchitoches, another city where the Court used to sit many years ago. The next issue of the Louisiana Bar Journal will be dedicated to the Court’s Bicentennial, and will include several articles of historic relevance. The Court will also be producing a booklet, similar to the booklet that was produced in 1813 upon the Court’s Centennial celebration, which will include a transcript of the Bicentennial ceremony and other articles of interest. Because of the historical interest of the booklet, we will also disseminate it to schools and libraries around the state so students and citizens, generally, will have a document of this historic event.

Our respective two branches of government have a history of mutual respect and cooperation, and I intend as Chief Justice to do everything I can to continue, and build upon, that relationship. This is one of the reasons I am glad to continue the tradition of these visits by our Court to your Chambers for the State of the Judiciary address, and I thank you for welcoming us here this afternoon. Thank you, as well, for the respect, courtesy and cooperation that you show our Justices, our state judges, and our staff every year upon presentation of the judicial branch budget requests, and other legislation that impacts the judiciary. Also, thank you to all of you who volunteer your time to Chair and serve on various committees concerned for judicial reform. A special thanks to Senator Ed Murray who chairs our Committee on House Concurrent Resolution 143, which I will speak about in a minute, and Rep. John Schroeder who does a yeoman’s job in chairing the multi-disciplinary Task Force on Legal Representation in Child Protection Cases. We thank you for your valuable input and your contributions.

I believe the mutual respect of our two branches is based upon a recognition that the Legislature and the Judiciary are two separate, but equal, branches of government. Our federal and state constitutions enshrine this principle of “separate yet equal”, a principle which is meaningless and ineffective without maintenance of an independent judiciary. Although judges in our state may be elected, their 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.

Even though the state judiciary’s budget is only about ½ of one percent of the total state budget, adequate funding of our branch of government guarantees an independent judiciary. It enables the state judiciary to fulfill its constitutionally mandated duties to resolve disputes, and also allows us to continue to work for reforms and improvements in the area of judicial administration.

We have worked diligently to return the respect, courtesy and cooperation you have shown us by the way the state judiciary responds when called upon. The Louisiana Supreme Court, either on its own or through the Judicial Council, responds regularly to requests from the Legislature for information regarding the operations of the judiciary. Some recent examples include the preparation and submission of the 2011 Judicial Council report in response to a House Concurrent Resolution that requested the Judicial Council to study the necessity of uniform jurisdictional limits in city courts and to make recommendations regarding the factors that should be considered by the Legislature when it acts on these issues.

Another example was the submission of the 2010 Judicial Council report in response to a House Concurrent Resolution regarding the need for uniform standards and licensing procedures for local juvenile detention facilities. Through its Judicial Administrator’s Office, the Court also responds to annual requests from the Legislative Fiscal Office for information regarding the fiscal impact of bills affecting the judiciary.

The Supreme Court is currently in the process of preparing responses to House Concurrent Resolution 143, which is a 2011 resolution that requests the Court to conduct a comprehensive study of the caseload data and the number of judges of the appellate courts, district courts, parish courts, and city courts “to determine changes necessary to the existing structure of the judiciary to provide the most efficient use of judicial resources.” In undertaking this work, the Court is looking at courts’ filing data, structure, finance, use of support personnel, territorial jurisdiction, jurisdictional limits, and the case weights used by the Judicial Council when evaluating judgeship needs. The Court created a ten-member committee to assist it in responding to the resolution and asked Senator Ed Murray to chair it. Senator Murray is joined by judges, legislators, and citizen members on the committee, including Senator Dan Claitor, Representative Nancy Landry, and Representative Katrina Jackson in this work, which is being staffed by our Judicial Administrator’s Office. We sincerely appreciate the service and contributions to the Committee of these legislators. A report on the parish courts has been submitted to the Legislature, and work on the reports on the courts of appeal, the district courts, and the city courts is underway.

The Judicial Council has several standing committees that report to the Legislature regularly. Chief among these are the New Judgeship Committee and the Court Cost Committee. Both of these committees were established by the Council in response to the Legislature’s request that the Council review all requests for new judgeships, the splitting or merging of any courts, or requests for new or increased court costs or fees. These are active committees of judges and others that play a critical role in assisting the Legislature when bills regarding the structure of the judiciary or the need for new or increased court costs are presented. Over the last few years, the Legislature and the Supreme Court have shared a concern about the provision of services for court users with Limited English Proficiency. In 2010, you passed House Concurrent Resolution 48, which urged the Judicial Council to recommend guidelines and rules to the Supreme Court for the qualification and standards on the use of court interpreters. You may be interested to learn that in 2012, the Louisiana Supreme Court joined the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts, and adopted a Supreme Court rule entitled Code of Professional Responsibility for Language Interpreters. Based on a national model adopted by many states, this code provides ten Canons designed to increase the standards of ethics and professionalism for language interpreters in Louisiana courts.

We are also in the process of scheduling court interpreter training classes to educate interpreters on selected topics, such as the interpreter’s role in the Court, legal terminology and the Louisiana Court system, the three modes of interpretation, and ethics. These classes end with a written examination that will test the interpreters in both English and the 2nd language. If an interpreter successfully passes all sections of this examination, he or she will be considered a “registered” interpreter. A list of registered interpreters will be maintained by the Louisiana Supreme Court and will be available to courts, attorneys, and other parties needing Court interpreters. Once “registered”, the interpreter will be qualified to sit for the standard certification examination, administered in cooperation with the National Center for State Courts.

One of the shining success stories of the collaboration of our two branches is the operation of our Drug Courts. In 2001, you allocated funds to enable the Supreme Court to establish a Drug Court office to provide oversight and standards to newly established drug courts throughout the state.

The idea behind Drug Courts is to effectively use the resources of a community to fight the problem of drug and alcohol addiction. The design of the first drug court was premised upon the ability of a judge, with the help of a drug court team and all of the justice system stakeholders, to provide an alternative to incarceration to individuals who have landed in the criminal justice system because of their addiction. Rather than incarcerate these individuals, instead they are provided with services. These services combine both substance abuse treatment and educational components that are supervised by a judge who has the ability to award incentives and sanctions based upon the performance of the clients while in treatment. Treatment is community-based, and drug court participants are required to meet with the judge on a regular basis to review progress. Drug court clients are drug-tested regularly and randomly, and are required to attend varying levels of treatment based upon an established phase system and the individual needs of each client.

As of today, a little more than 14 years after the first drug court opened in our state, there are now 49 drug courts operating in Louisiana under the supervision of the Supreme Court Drug Court Office, including the addition of one family preservation court. Within 30 days we will also add a new juvenile drug court. We continue to receive requests from other jurisdictions who are interested in expanding the drug court program to their communities. Operation of these drug courts in accordance with established procedures and standards results in savings of both money and lives. Thanks to the continued funding provided by you, the Legislature, our Louisiana drug court program continues to be nationally admired and respected.

In 2012, Louisiana operated 48 drug courts – 29 adult, 17 juvenile and 2 family preservation courts - serving an average of 2,779 clients a month. These drug court clients spent approximately 336,000 hours in skilled treatment sessions, and more than 189,000 multi-panel drug tests were administered. At the end of 2012, we provided a new court training to a drug court team in the 36th JDC in DeRidder, and they started a new adult drug court program in January, 2013 to serve the needs of the Beauregard Parish community. In addition to oversight of the operations of all Louisiana drug courts, the Supreme Court Drug Court Office has recently partnered with the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission to take over administration and oversight of five Louisiana DWI Courts.

In 2012, a milestone was reached for Louisiana Drug Courts – more than 10,000 clients have now graduated from a Louisiana drug court program. In addition, 37 drug-free babies were born to drug court clients, for a total of 449 drug-free babies since the inception of drug courts in Louisiana, which amounts to a cost savings of One hundred twelve million, two hundred fifty thousand dollars ($112,250,000), based on a national average study by the National Council of State Legislatures. Last year, 304 clients who were previously unemployed found jobs, and 68 clients who had not finished high school earned a GED. Drug courts continue to be the most effective alternative sentencing option in Louisiana, saving taxpayer money while reducing crime and literally saving lives.

Each year, we operate a Drug Court Judicial Ride-Along Program. Legislators, sheriffs, district attorneys and other elected officials are invited to visit drug courts in their areas to observe firsthand how drug courts operate and the results they produce in the overall operation of the criminal justice system. I hope some of you were able to accept the invitation of your local programs to get an up-close view of the drug court experience; if you did, thank you for your participation and interest. If any of you are interested now in visiting a drug court program, I would encourage you to do so. Our drug court judges are all volunteers who manage their drug court dockets on top of their regular dockets, and these judges tell me that their drug court dockets can be the some of the most rewarding work they do – they say they can literally watch drug court clients’ lives change before their eyes.

As Justices on the Supreme Court, our responsibilities fall into two distinct arenas - our adjudicative responsibility, which is to decide cases based only upon the law and the facts of each case; and our administrative responsibility, to oversee the state court system and to continuously undertake efforts to improve that court system. I would like to now turn to the Court’s recent efforts to strengthen several key components of the state court system - the competency and knowledge of our judges; the competency and knowledge of our attorneys; and the public’s access to our state courts.

Over my several years on the bench, I have met judges from all over the country. I can say without hesitation that our state judiciary is composed of some of the most committed, knowledgeable and hardworking judges in the country. These jurists realize that staying abreast of the latest developments in the law is of critical importance. To this end, the Judicial College operates under the auspices of the Supreme Court to provide quality continuing legal education for Louisiana's judges. Continuing legal education courses focus on new law, ethics and cutting-edge issues.

In recent years, there has been an emphasis placed upon the quality and relevance of the judicial education offered by the College. The governance of the College has been restructured, newly revised by-laws have been adopted, and a new Board of Governors composed of district, appellate, and city court judges has been selected. The board member judges have worked tirelessly to strengthen the core of the judicial College. The Board of Governors presented a plan to the Court to increase staffing at the College to include a Judicial Educator. The College also recently hired a Judicial Education program Attorney, who will assist in developing new and improved curricula for college seminars. Further, at the College’s request, the Court recently enacted a rule whereby at least five hours of a judge’s continuing education must be from courses offered by the Louisiana Judicial College. In accordance with our belief that the state judiciary owes a duty to its citizens to maintain competency and knowledge of the law, the Court and the Judicial College are committed to continue making improvements in the area of judicial education.

One of the many responsibilities of the Supreme Court is oversight of the legal profession, and it is our duty to do what we can to insure a competent, knowledgeable, ethical and professional bar. With this goal in mind, we recently approved changes to assure validity, enhance reliability and create consistency in the Louisiana bar examination process for new attorneys.

Our Committee on Bar Admissions, which is comprised of fifteen members of the bar appointed by the Court, is charged with the testing of applicants to assure minimum legal competence, and is also duty-bound to study and improve the examination, its administration and grading processes. About ten years ago, the Committee began a review of the existing bar exam. Following extensive analysis of the testing system, the Bar Admissions Committee made its recommendation to the Louisiana Supreme Court for several revisions to the bar examination process.

In the fall of 2011, after soliciting and reviewing comments from the Louisiana State Bar Association, the law schools, members of the bar, and members of the public, the Louisiana Supreme Court took the following actions. For the short-term, effective October 19, 2011, the current scoring structure was retained, except that the "conditional failure" status was eliminated. Applicants who had already conditionally failed the exam had one final chance to sit for the separate subject examinations required to pass at the February 2012 administration of the bar exam. Thereafter, all applicants are required to take all nine subject examinations. For the legislators that are attorneys, you may be interested to know that “spotting”, or skipping subjects on the exam, is no longer allowed. The court also placed a limitation on the number of times an applicant may sit for the Louisiana bar exam, and now, applicants shall have only five (5) attempts to pass the exam.

The Court’s second order implemented a compensatory scoring model which began with the July 2012 bar exam. The passing score is set at 650 with Civil Code subjects to be weighted twice as much as non-Code subjects.

The Court will be evaluating these changes and taking up additional long-term suggested changes to the bar exam, including the possible addition of a multiple choice section.

Another initiative which I believe will be of great benefit to the education of our young lawyers is an idea that was brought to the Court by the Louisiana State Bar Association - the “Transition Into Practice” or Mentoring program for new attorneys. Modeled after successful mentoring programs from other states, the LSBA is proposing a two-year voluntary mentoring pilot program in Shreveport, Baton Rouge and the Greater New Orleans area to start in 2015. Upon the conclusion of the pilot, the program would be evaluated, and if successful, would be expanded statewide. Mentors would be experienced Louisiana attorneys who must meet certain qualifications and be accepted to participate. During the course of the program, new attorney mentees will be required to meet with their mentors on a quarterly basis to discuss topics such as the Louisiana Code of Professionalism, the Lawyers Assistance program, trust accounts, and others. In addition, they would be required to attend court activities throughout the year, such civil and criminal hearings in state district court, hearings in specialized courts (bankruptcy, administrative law court, small claims court), a deposition (with the mentor), and an appellate court oral argument. This Mentoring program could be of great benefit to young attorneys, especially those young attorneys who practice alone or in small firms who may not have an experienced attorney close by to answer questions.

As I mentioned earlier, we have also taken steps this year to continue to improve the public’s access to the judicial system. Access to Justice has long been one of my top priorities, first as a district court judge, and then as a Supreme Court Justice, and now as Chief Justice. A jurisdiction may have the most advanced court system and greatest jurists in the world, but if it is not accessible to all citizens, it is flawed. All participants in the court system - including judges, attorneys, and those with the power of the purse - have an obligation to see that the least among us have the same opportunity and access to justice as those with money and resources.

I’d like to tell you about two recent ongoing efforts to promote access to justice. First, in response to the growing increase in the number of pro-se or self-represented litigants using the court system as a result of a weakened economy and rising litigation costs, several years ago we joined with the Louisiana State Bar Association to form a committee to explore methods of assisting those self-represented litigants in navigating the legal system. A Task Force, chaired by Judge Harry Randow of the 9th JDC, was formed which studied the issue and drafted recommendations on how to improve access to all levels of court, including strengthening training for judges and court employees, improving the quality and availability of legal pleadings and forms, and simplifying court procedures and rules.

Subsequently, the Louisiana District Judges Association took up the mantle of self-represented litigants, and formed the “Self Represented Litigants Committee”. It is currently chaired by Judge Lisa Woodruff-White, under the direction of Judge Harry Randow, now president of the LDJA. The Committee’s mission is to provide tools and information not just for the self-represented litigant, but also to assist the judge in more properly and effectively handling a case where a litigant appears in court and is not represented by counsel. The Committee has worked to inform judges and the general public of Self-represented litigant services currently available in Louisiana; to provide education, information and support to courts about self-represented litigants and services; to encourage the creation or enrichment of Self-represented litigant services within court systems; and to develop resources for use by courts in dealing with Self-represented litigants. The Committee is also very active in judicial education, presenting education seminars to explain and promote the efforts of various entities including the Louisiana Bar Association, Clerks Associations and other legal services that provide information and assistance for self-represented litigants.

Under the leadership of Judge Woodruff-White, the Committee recently attained our approval to amend the Code of Judicial Conduct to include the following directive: “A judge may make reasonable efforts, consistent with the law and court rules, to facilitate the abilities of all litigants, including self-represented litigants, to be fairly heard, provided, however, that in so doing, a judge should not give self-represented litigants an unfair advantage or create an appearance of partiality to the reasonable person.”

Secondly, we recognize that serving on a jury is perhaps the public’s most important contribution to our court system. However, we also recognize that often the public finds court proceedings confusing. To supplement the efforts of our state judges to fully explain court procedures to jurors, the Court recently created the “Committee to Study Plain Civil Jury Instructions”. The Committee was charged with studying standard civil jury instructions with a goal of translating them into plain and understandable language.

The Committee’s draft instructions have been posted on the Court’s website for public comment, and judges throughout the state have been asked to review and comment upon the draft instructions. All comments will be reviewed in the near future with an eye toward revising the proposed pattern jury instructions. Our goal is to give jurors the clearest instructions about the law that applies in each case. This is vital to helping them do justice. Clear instructions benefit not only the citizens who serve on juries, but ultimately the judiciary as a whole.

We also continue to make advances at the Court in the area of technology. Last year, we hired the court’s first Chief Information Officer. Michael Evanson came to us from American Airlines in Tulsa. He has only been with the Court a few months, but he has already made substantial progress in reorganizing our Court technology departments, defining the scope of projects, and implementing new project management tools. As you may know, we currently live-stream our oral arguments over the Internet, we utilize video conferencing for many of our Court meetings, and we have also successfully implemented a new integrated computer-based Enterprise Resource Planning system to manage financial resources, materials, payroll, and human resources. We also continue to make progress on the development of a unified case management system to be used by our city courts, and a few months ago, we began accepting court filings electronically or by “e-filing”. In addition to e-filing being of great convenience to the attorneys throughout the state, it also enables a litigant in Monroe or Shreveport to get to the Courthouse just as fast as a litigant in New Orleans, in the case of an emergency filing, and thus it has improved the public’s access to the Supreme Court.

I began my remarks today commenting on the history of the cooperation and collaboration between our two branches of government. I pledge as Chief Justice to continue that cooperation and open lines of communication not only with the Legislature but also with the Executive Branch of government. In this spirit of intergovernmental cooperation, I would like to express again my appreciation to this Legislature and to the Governor’s Office for consulting with our staff about certain proposed legislation. First, we were consulted about proposed legislation to address the possession of weapons. This legislation would provide for mandatory reporting of certain information from district court clerks to our Information Technology Department, for ultimate reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, when adults are prohibited from possessing a firearm because of their conviction of certain felony crimes, being found not guilty by reason of insanity or lacking mental capacity to proceed, or being involuntarily committed to an inpatient mental health treatment facility.

We have also been consulted about proposed legislation affecting the Families in Need of Services or FINS program. Continued reform of Louisiana’s juvenile justice system is imperative, and it is critical in these efforts that the welfare of the child be paramount. It is encouraging to see the Governor’s office taking an active part in juvenile justice reform efforts. This legislation seeks to change the parameters for informal FINS to now include some non-delinquent behaviors, such as truancy. An argument can certainly be made that children who merely skip school or stay out past curfew should not be stigmatized and end up in the juvenile delinquency system. This legislation effectively draws attention to this issue, and hopefully will result in a dialogue among FINS stakeholders about necessary reforms. It will also draw attention to the continued need to ensure sufficient resources and services are available statewide for our youth.

It is obviously not the role of the Justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court to comment upon the substance of proposed legislation. Nonetheless, we are truly appreciative of the other branches’ willingness to reach out to us when information is needed as to how legislation might impact court operations, and we thank you for your consideration.

In conclusion, let me again say what an honor and privilege it is to be before you today. We greatly appreciate your hospitality. I look forward to working with you as Chief Justice, and the members of the Court and I stand ready to assist where appropriate. On behalf of the state judiciary, thank you President Alario, Speaker Kleckley, 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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