Saturday, July 13, 2024

Louisiana lawsuit could limit advantage for attorneys who are state legislators

by BIZ Magazine

BY: JULIE O’DONOGHUE – Louisiana Illuminator

The Louisiana Supreme Court will review whether granting automatic delays in court proceedings to attorneys who are also state lawmakers is fair. The justices’ decision to do so comes just days after Gov. Jeff Landry vetoed a bill that would have changed the practice.

The court agreed Tuesday to hear arguments over whether Sen. Alan Seabaugh and Rep. Micheal Melerine, Republicans who are partners in a Shreveport law firm, have been unreasonably delaying court proceedings related to a car accident because of their legislative responsibilities.

Caddo Parish resident Theresa Fisher initially sued the driver who hit her car and his insurance company, Hanover Insurance Group, which Seabaugh and Melerine represent, in April 2019. She’s seeking financial compensation for medical problems she the accident caused, according to her attorneys.

The case, pending in the First Judicial District in Caddo, has been delayed more than once, sometimes because it conflicted with Seabaugh’s legislative schedule. He has been a lawmaker since 2010. Melerine joined the Legislature earlier this year.

The date of the trial was first scheduled in March 2021 and has been moved four times since then. It’s now on the calendar for this coming October.

Fisher’s attorneys, J. Cole Sartin and Joseph Gregorio, have asked a judge to weigh in on whether the legislative continuances, which were responsible for one of the trial delays as well as other extensions, are interfering with their client’s right to have her day in court.

Louisiana gives attorneys who are lawmakers leeway to ask for delays in court proceedings. They can seek a continuance for any time 30 days before until 30 days after a legislative session, as well as for travel and other meetings their elected role requires.

After Sartin and Gregorio first raised concerns over legislative delays with the court this spring, Seabaugh introduced legislation that would have given him leverage over the opposing attorneys.

Lawmakers, several of whom are also lawyers, went along with Seabaugh and voted unanimously for his proposal, but the governor vetoed the measure.

Senate Bill 185 would have required attorneys who challenged legislative extensions to pay the court costs and legal expenses for opposing state lawmakers. In other words, it would have likely forced Fisher, through Gregorio and Sartine, to pay Seabaugh because her attorneys raised the legal challenge to his legislative extensions, Gregorio said.
Seabaugh and Sartin declined to comment for this article. Gregorio said it was a “welcomed relief” to see Landry veto the bill that would have saddled his client with extra expenses

Not everyone was happy to see the legislation trashed, however. While it contained some expansion of lawmakers’ entitlement to court extensions, the bill also placed new restrictions on the practice that advocates for domestic violence victims have sought for years.

Had it become law, Seabaugh’s legislation would have prohibited lawmakers from using legislative extensions in cases involving protective orders, stalking, domestic violence and sexual assault. Child custody cases would also have been off limits for automatic continuances for lawmakers for the first time.

Kim Sport, an attorney and advocate for domestic violence survivors, said she was disappointed the bill didn’t become law.

In cases involving intimate partner abuse, it can be dangerous for proceedings to be on pause for months because one of the attorneys is also in the Legislature, Sport said. Years ago, she had a client whose child custody dispute with an abusive ex-husband was dragged out because the husband’s attorney was a lawmaker, she said.

This year, the legislature met for three legislative sessions spanning from January until early June. The schedule entitled any attorney serving as a lawmaker to push his or her court proceedings from the second week of January until early July.

The Louisiana Supreme Court won’t be dealing with the issue of whether legislative extensions are appropriate in cases of domestic violence, sexual abuse or child custody because the complaint about Seabaugh’s delays isn’t related to those problems.

Seabaugh and Melerine also aren’t the only lawmakers who have drawn ire for using their jobs in the legislature to delay court cases. Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Port Allen, angered a state judge in Baton Rouge last year and lost a case when he failed to appear in court, The Advocate reported.

Jordan had filed three legislative continuances, which were all denied. Like Seabaugh, he drafted legislation in 2023 to try to expand lawmakers’ power to seek court extensions when their work as lawmakers interferes with their legal practices. The Louisiana Senate shot down the proposal.

For his court case, Seabaugh has argued legislative extensions weren’t the only reason Fisher’s trial has been delayed and shouldn’t become a scapegoat. Automatic continuances were necessary to make sure attorneys who are lawmakers can adequately represent their clients, he wrote in a brief earlier this year.

“It ensures the attorneys who are also members of the legislature can be fully prepared and not distracted by their legislative duties,” he said.

Attorney General Liz Murrill, who is a political ally of Seabaugh’s, filed an amicus brief supporting him, but in Landry’s veto message, the governor indicated more scrutiny of legislative legal extensions might be warranted.

“[A]n attorney-legislator can simply enroll as counsel of record or place his or her name on a pleading to qualify for a continuance or extension in any case,” Landry wrote of the current law. “By way of comparison, Texas allows legislative continuances, and the attorney seeking the continuance must file a copy of the continuance with the Texas Ethics Commission.”
“Unless or until Louisiana provides similar oversight, the courts provide a check in the event a legislative continuance is simply not possible,” Landry said.

The governor might have also had less principled reasons for rejecting Seabaugh’s legislation.

Landry and Seabaugh are friends and typically politically aligned, but the two men have been sparring publicly in conservative talk radio appearances over the past two weeks.

Seabaugh is upset that Landry vetoed another bill, sponsored by Melerine, that would have lowered the cap for financial damages that can be extracted during lawsuits over automobile accidents. In response, Landry has publicly said Seabaugh cannot be trusted on the topic of lawsuit damages because he works as an attorney for insurance companies who often get sued.

Landry’s office declined to comment on whether his fight with Seabaugh contributed to the veto.

A date for the Louisiana Supreme Court to hear arguments over lawmakers’ legal extensions hasn’t been set yet but will likely take place in the fall, Gregorio said.

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