How Does the Louisiana Supreme Court Work?
The Supreme Court is the highest court and the final arbiter in judicial proceedings in the state of Louisiana. The court has exclusive jurisdiction over disciplinary proceedings against attorneys in Louisiana, recommendations of the judiciary commission for the discipline of judges, and questions of fact affecting its appellate jurisdiction.
The court’s appellate jurisdiction covers cases where a law or ordinance has been declared unconstitutional and in capital cases where a death sentence has been passed. Cases originating from the Louisiana lower courts where a death penalty has been imposed generally bypass review by the intermediate courts of appeal to be handled directly by the Supreme Court. The court also has appellate jurisdiction over all issues involving a civil action brought before it.
The Louisiana Supreme Court has general supervisory jurisdiction over all the lower courts in the state. Cases may ultimately reach the Supreme Court if one of the parties remains unsatisfied by the lower courts’ decisions. The court is authorized to establish administrative and procedural rules that are not in conflict with the law, for the lower courts.
The Supreme Court may also assign a sitting or retired judge to any court in the state. It has the sole right to provide by-rules for attorneys’ appointments as ad-hoc or temporary judges of the city, municipal and traffic, parish, juvenile, or family courts. The court may also consider applications for writs to review individual cases. In writ applications, a party must convince the court in a special application that their case is worthy of a high court review due to an error in the opinion, judgment, or ruling of the lower court.
The Louisiana Supreme Court considers several factors in granting or denying a case brought before it. These include:
- Conflicting decisions - This indicates that the lower court’s decision conflicts with the decision or judgment of a court of appeal, Louisiana Supreme Court, or the United States Supreme Court on the same legal matter.
- Significant unresolved issues of law - This indicates that the lower court’s decision involves a major legal matter that should be determined by the Supreme Court.
- Overruling or modification of a controlling precedent - This indicates that the lower court’s decision in a case is premised on a prior ruling or decision of the Louisiana Supreme Court, which should be overruled or substantially amended.
- Erroneous interpretation of a law or constitution - This suggests that the lower court’s decision erroneously interprets or applies the state or federal constitution or the United States or Louisiana law, and the ruling will cause material injustice or significantly affect the public interest.
- Gross departure from proper judicial proceedings - Here, the ruling of the lower court has strayed far from proper judicial proceedings or so abused its powers to call for an exercise of the Louisiana Supreme Court supervisory jurisdiction.
If a majority of the Supreme Court justices agree to review a case, it is set on the court’s docket for full briefing and argument before the court. The case’s full record is transferred from the lower court and lodged with the Louisiana Supreme Court clerk. Note that no new testimony or evidence is accepted in the Supreme Court. Only the testimony and exhibits contained in the record from the lower court will be reviewed. There is also no jury in the Louisiana Supreme Court. Prior to the hearing in the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice assigns one justice to write the court’s opinion. The opinion is only written after the case has been argued before the court.
Typically, during arguments in the Supreme Court, attorneys speak for a specific period on legal reasons for which they hope to obtain a favorable ruling from the court for their clients. No witnesses are required, and only the attorneys speak before the justices of the Supreme Court. In disciplinary proceedings for lawyers, each side is allowed to speak for 20 minutes during an oral argument. Oral argument periods for criminal cases, civil cases, judge disciplinary cases, and death penalty cases last for 20, 30, 30, and 40 minutes, respectively. Even though an oral argument has time limitations for the attorneys, a Justice may interrupt an attorney during the presentation. No additional time is given even for interjections from the Supreme Court justices.
On rare occasions, other than the attorneys representing the parties, the Louisiana Supreme Court may allow persons who are not a party to the case to file written briefs with the court and even present oral arguments at the hearing. These persons are referred to as “friend of the court” or “amicus curiae.” A friend of the court privilege is only granted if:
- The requesting party has an interest in another matter with a similar question as that before the Louisiana Supreme Court;
- The requesting party has knowledge of a statute or fact that might otherwise escape the court’s attention; or
- The party making the request has a significant, legitimate interest that will likely be affected by the ruling of the case, which will not be adequately protected by those already a party to the case.
Upon completing an oral argument in the Supreme Court, the designated justice prepares a proposed written opinion circulated to the other six justices for review and approval. If the majority of the justices approve the opinion, the opinion is considered “passed” and accepted as the Louisiana Supreme Court’s official decision. In cases where most justices dissent on the proposed opinion, the opinion is reassigned to another justice who prepares a new opinion. The cycle continues until when the majority of the justices agree on the written opinion, resulting in the official decision of the Louisiana Supreme Court. Usually, a decision is rendered by the Supreme Court approximately six weeks after oral argument. Over 2,000 new cases are initiated annually at the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Decisions of the Supreme Court are made public and are accessible on the Louisiana Supreme Court website. The court’s decisions are published in print and electronic media, which may be obtained in most law libraries in Louisiana. The court’s decisions are made available to the public through the Court Actions page of the court’s website. Opinions are listed and also archived monthly. Individuals may also visit the court location at:
400 Royal Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
Phone: (504) 310–2300
Per the Constitution of 1974, the Louisiana Supreme Court has seven justices elected from districts across the state. In 2010, the court districts were reapportioned into seven new districts, with one justice elected from each district. A Chief Justice is selected from among the seven, who serves as the judicial system’s chief administrative officer. A qualified candidate of the court must have been admitted to the practice of law in Louisiana for ten years and must be residing in the respective district, circuit, or parish for one year before the election.
Candidates above the age of 70 are not considered for justiceships in the Supreme Court. Supreme Court justices are elected to ten-year terms. When there is a vacancy, the remaining justices appoint a temporary replacement until a special election may hold. In exceptional circumstances, a justice may be removed on the judiciary commission’s recommendation, or impeached by the state house of representative and removed with a two-thirds vote of the senate. Justices with expiring terms may also stand for re-election.