The jury is out for Louisiana

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 7, 2003

By Dan Juneau-The LABI Report

We have all heard the expression, “Only in Louisiana!” Sometimes it refers to unique aspects of our culture that make us alluring. Unfortunately, it often refers to the fact that we do things in government that make us stick out in a negative fashion. The role of juries in our civil justice system is one of the areas in which “being quaint” isn’t a plus.

Most Louisiana citizens think they have an automatic right to a trial by jury. That is correct in criminal cases, but not necessarily true in civil lawsuits. The Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to a trial by jury in lawsuits where $20 or more is involved. But that guarantee is for federal trials only. States have the right to set higher monetary thresholds for jury trials in civil cases. Louisiana happens to be one of only two states that prohibit jury trials unless $50,000 or more is in dispute.

To see how biased our state government is toward jury trials in civil cases, one only has to read the preamble to the section of Louisiana law governing jury trials. Here are some excerpts:

“Civil jury trials occupy a unique position in Louisiana…. Appeals in civil cases are on both the law and the facts. Appellate courts review the findings of fact of the trial courts, whether made by the judge alone or by a jury; and if, after a study of the record of appeal, they conclude the findings of fact appealed from are erroneous, the appellate courts substitute their own (emphasis added) findings, even though there may be evidence in the record to support the findings of fact of the trial courts. The result is that the civil jury trial in Louisiana is the relatively rare exception, and trial by the judge alone the general rule.”

The power of the appellate courts in Louisiana to review both law and fact and to render a new decision from the bench is an awesome power. In every other state, an appellate court must remand a case back to the original court jurisdiction when it finds error with a decision. The difficulty in getting a civil jury trial in Louisiana, coupled with the awesome power of our courts, definitely places the Bayou State in a class all by itself in the civil justice arena. The presence of appellate review of fact may be the basis for the arguments made in the preamble stated above, but it is a chilling reminder of how out of step Louisiana is with the civil justice system in the other 49 states. It is presumptuous to argue that we have it “right” and the other states all have it “wrong.” What we do in Louisiana is to set judges up as mini-gods with uncommon powers and to relegate the concept of trial by jury to the museum wing of our civil justice system.

When bills are filed in the state Legislature to give Louisiana businesses and individuals more of a right to jury trials in civil cases, the same old adversaries show up to oppose them. Who are they? The plaintiff attorneys and–surprise!–the judges. “Gods” don’t like to see their powers diminished, so they flex strong muscles to see that it doesn’t happen. Perhaps someday the Legislature will be more concerned with the rights of the citizenry than the power of the judges. In the meantime, we will remain “quaint” when it comes to empowering individuals with the right to a trial by jury.