Penalty for Judges Unconstitutional

With the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras behind us, we are enjoying a short break in the festivities here in New Orleans. For this month’s Firm Line, we decided to focus on an interesting decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of a centuries-old and rarely invoked law that penalized judges for failing to issue timely rulings.

On January 29, 2013, the Louisiana Supreme Court issued its decision striking Louisiana Revised Statute 13:4210. The law was enacted in 1884 and provided for a forfeiture of one quarter of a judge’s salary in the event the judge failed to issue a judgment within thirty days of the close of trial. In Prejean v. Barousse, No. 2012-C-1177, the Court held the law to be unconstitutional on multiple grounds.

The case arose out of a child custody action in the 15th Judicial District Court for the Parishes of Acadia, Lafayette and Vermillion. The last day of trial in the action was March 18, 2011. When the district court judge did not render judgment within thirty days as required by a Louisiana Statute, Ms. Prejean brought a writ of mandamus against the Acadia Parish Clerk of Court seeking an order requiring him to notify the legislative auditor that the district judge had violated the time delays prescribed by the law. The writ also sought an order against the state auditor to withhold one quarter’s salary from the district judge as required by Louisiana Revised Statute 13:4210. The district court denied the writ; the court of appeal affirmed, and on its own motion the court of appeal took up the issue of the constitutionality of 13:4210.

Because the Louisiana constitution reserves to the Louisiana Supreme Court the authority to regulate judicial conduct, the court of appeal found 13:4210 to be unconstitutional on its face. The court of appeal further found the law to be an unconstitutional violation of due process concluding that 13:4210 sought to reduce a judge’s salary without adequate notice or hearing. Finally, the court of appeal concluded that the law’s measure of “one quarter salary” was unconstitutionally vague. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeal’s decision in its entirety striking 13:4210 as unconstitutional.