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Powerful business group to start evaluating judges, critics fear ‘simplistic’ approach


July 26, 2019
By Mark Ballard
Originally Posted on The Advocate

After years of complaining that Louisiana judges don’t support business and a sheaf of corporate scorecards criticizing the state’s court system, a powerful business lobbying group is undertaking what’s its top official calls a deep dive survey into how civil litigation is handled.

The Louisiana Association of Business & Industry in July began meeting with some of the state’s largest “white shoe” law firms, which represent corporations, for their help in creating a holistic judicial evaluation program that would guide LABI and its members in future judicial elections.

“We are currently recruiting business-minded law firms and lawyers to serve on the Legal Advisory Council,” which will oversee “judicial intelligence” gathering, says the invitation. “The evaluation will inform the business community on how certain courts affect the state’s economic and institutional health.”

Called 20/20 Judicial Vision, the LABI effort hopes to change “the culture in Louisiana courtrooms.”

LABI President Stephen Waguespack said the analysis has been evolving since the association’s officials began meeting with lawyers and judges.

Though initially called a “Judicial Scorecard,” Waguespack said the end result will be more of survey. Judges won’t be graded.

But various cases will be described in detail to help provide context to readers unfamiliar with law. Evaluators will look at the facts and how they were applied to the law, what both sides argued, how the decisions were made, and what the rulings mean, Waguespack said.

“We get so many questions from employers who don’t understand judicial decisions,” Waguespack said. The survey will help clarify that confusion.

He wants to keep abreast of important decisions to the business community, not only what impact the cases will have but what they mean to employers and businesses.

“It’ll be a great opportunity to better inform and engage the community,” Waguespack said.

Waguespack said he hopes to have the first survey ready to go in time for the 2020 elections in which most of the district and appellate court judges will be elected.

Not everyone is elated by the survey.

Some are concerned about LABI’s role of aggressively advocating for business interests and how that might weigh on its survey. Others are nervous about how deep the research and how sweeping the survey's pronouncements.

Judges are supposed to be arbiters, fitting facts into established law, then weighing decisions, said Robert A. Kutcher president of the Louisiana State Bar Association Board of Governors.

“They’re umpires. They call balls and strikes,” Kutcher said. “Half the people who walk out of the courtroom are unhappy … But, to say I lost therefore the judge was bad, well, it’s very simplistic approach.”

Appellate courts, which review many of the decisions made at a trial level, have to go through boxes and boxes of evidence, arguments and law. It’s kind of hard to boil down into a few sentences, said 21st Judicial District Court Judge Robert H. Morrison III, who holds court in Livingston, Tangipahoa, and St. Helena parishes. Morrison handles government policy issues for the Louisiana District Judges Association.

Even simple efforts to track how fast a judge moves through his or her individual docket is fraught with caveats, he said.

For instance, Morrison is about the begin a complex murder trial in Livingston. The criminal trial will take up a week that otherwise would have been devoted to deciding civil cases, like those involving injuries in car wreck. His clearance average for civil cases undoubtedly will drop.

“There’s nothing wrong with putting a survey like that together,” Morrison said. It might even help the public understand better why decisions were made the way they were. But he says such surveys can’t really be used as proof that this judge is pro-business that one is not.

“I don’t know it’s something you can report in enough detail that you can compare apples to apples,” Morrison said.