Our Founding Fathers recognized that a strong and independent judiciary was essential to safeguard the personal and property rights of all members of society, who would be treated equally, under the Rule of Law.
Here, in Louisiana, we have a strong, committed, vibrant, intelligent, dedicated, independent, and hard-working judiciary that helps attorneys on both sides of the aisle achieve just and fair resolution of disputes, whether civil, criminal, or domestic, in state and federal court by settlement or by trial.
Unfortunately, there are some interests — generally large, insurance, out-of-state — who do not want an even playing field nor a truly independent judiciary. They want a rigged game, which advances and protects their interests while individual rights are trampled, ignored, or buried. The middle class and their family-owned businesses will lose out to the multi-nationals. Might will make right. They who have the gold will make the rules.
The U.S. Chamber, the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), the Federalist Society, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Heritage Foundation, and other similar organizations do the bidding of these large, foreign, insurance, tobacco, petro-chemical, and pharmaceutical interests through a form of sophisticated and high-tech bullying. Armed with misleading statistics and half-true snippets from what may or may not have been real cases, they try to bully legislators into changing the rules. Try to bully executives into appointing the judges they want. And, with their “judicial hellhole” reports, try to bully the entire judiciary.
These reports, released annually in December, are calculated to assist tort reform efforts in particular states. Last year, Louisiana was tagged the No. 2 “judicial hellhole” in order to assist the oil and gas industry in its attempt to have the levee board costal erosion suit legislatively terminated. As noted in an opinion column in The Advocate, Louisiana was targeted “largely on the strength of lawsuits that seek compensation from oil and gas companies for decades of vandalism that have helped wipe out huge chunk of the wetlands and cleared a path for killer storm surges.” Indeed, the opinion piece concluded: “Someone around here has tried to turn Louisiana into a hellhole, but not a judicial one.”
Given the stated intention of some lobbyists to return in 2015 with a renewed effort to lower the jury threshold, repeal the Direct Action Statute, and eliminate collateral source, it is predictable that Louisiana will be prominently featured in 2014. I would not be surprised, in this regard, if ATRA and the U.S. Chamber pointed to the BP oil spill litigation as a justification for Louisiana’s “judicial hellhole” ranking — despite the fact that such litigation is pending in federal court, under federal law, and has nothing to do with anything influenced or controlled by the Louisiana Legislature or the state court judiciary.
Indeed, the BP oil spill litigation itself has become a perfect example of baseless attacks on the independence of the judiciary. Apparently having underestimated the costs of its landmark settlement, BP has engaged in a desperate attempt to disavow the agreement it negotiated, executed, and asked the court to approve, by falsely accusing a universally respected attorney whom BP asked to be appointed administrator (and, at least implicitly, an exceptionally well-regarded federaljudge) of “changing” the deal — despite a clear and unequivocal record to the contrary.
And who has supported BP in this effort? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which embraced and advanced BP’s misleading and self-serving agenda against the interests of thousands of local, family-owned businesses in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast whom the Chamber purports to “represent.”
Indeed, the U.S. Chamber’s position was so outrageous that numerous local Chambers filed their own opposing amicus brief defending the court and the claims administrator, making it clear that the U.S. Chamber did not speak for them, and reminding the court of all the times that the U.S. Chamber (when seeking to, for example, deprive a consumer of his or her day in court by enforcing a hidden binding arbitration provision) had argued that the terms of a contract were sacrosanct and that people and businesses must be held to their word.
The Professional Rules of Conduct are, it seems, ill-equipped to address these types of attacks on the judiciary. While attorneys (in particular, plaintiffs’ attorneys) are bound by rules designed to protect the integrity of judicial officers and to prevent misleading statements in the press, a company that speaks through a non-lawyer corporate representative or a group like the U.S. Chamber is apparently immune.
As members of the bar, we should all take a stand against these outrageous and unfounded attacks on the Louisiana legal system and distinguished members of the Louisiana bar, including members of our judiciary. Certainly we, as lawyers, all understand the necessity of protecting and maintaining the integrity of the legal profession and the independence of the judiciary.