Legislators unwilling to change law that ignores court judgments
Louisiana lawmakers declined to recommend changes to a law that lets cities and parishes refuse to pay judgments against them in court.
In a 7-3 decision Tuesday, the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure recommended no changes be made to a provision in the Louisiana Constitution that says state agencies and any political subdivisions can be sued and lose — but can still refuse to pay any monetary judgments.
The committee convened to consider proposed constitutional changes as called for in a resolution Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, authored last year.
According to the constitution, civil judgments can only be paid if the state legislature or the political subdivision specifically appropriates or sets aside the money. That provision has been the subject of wide debate among politicians and frustration for plaintiffs who have been waiting decades for payouts that might never come.
Ordinarily, if the losing party in a lawsuit refuses to pay, the prevailing party can call on the sheriff to seize the loser’s property. But in 1960, the state legislature amended the constitution to carve out an exception for lawsuits against government bodies.
Even in cases of serious injury or when government employees are blatantly negligent, the victims can win millions in court but have no way to actually collect the money.
Rep. Robby Carter, D-Amite, said some government bodies in Louisiana have taken advantage of the situation.
“I know for a fact that some governmental bodies, including the City of New Orleans, lets these judgments pile up,” Carter said. “Then they’ll say, ‘Alright, who’s willing to take a percentage of their judgment to get paid? We’re going to pay some of these…We’ll pay those who are willing to take the biggest discount.’”
Carter, an attorney, pressed his colleagues on the committee to consider changing the provision. Such a change would require a two-thirds vote of the legislature and approval from a majority of statewide voters.
However, it could cause big problems if all of the government’s property and money is suddenly up for grabs. Committee chairman Rep. Greg Miller, R-Norco, said the provision expresses a fundamental law whether people agree with it or not.
“So that if there’s a judgment against the state, somebody can’t come along and seize Huey Long out front and ask that it be sold by the sheriff at public sale to the highest bidder to pay for that judgment,” Miller said, referring to the statue of the former governor on the State Capitol lawn.
Carter agreed that the provision is enshrined in the constitution but said the legislature should propose changes that could provide some form of relief to plaintiffs.
Prior to the 1960 amendment, the constitution allowed seizures of government property that served no public purpose. For now, a plaintiff who wins a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the state of Louisiana won’t collect a dime unless the legislators want to pay them.
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