19th-century law overturned

2011 case prompts La. justices to review 1864 legislation

The Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional a state law enacted in 1884, but rarely invoked, that allowed penalizing judges for overdue decisions by docking one-quarter of their salary.

The opinion struck down the 1864 law “on its face” because the Louisiana constitution reserves the authority to regulate “judicial conduct” to the Supreme Court, justices said in an opinion made public Wednesday.

The high court also said the law was an “unconstitutional violation of the due process clause” because it did not give judges notice their pockets would be lighter.

They also said the law’s detail of withholding “one quarter salary” was “unconstitutionally vague.”

In the ruling, justices looked at two laws that applied: the one that docked judges’ pay, and another that spelled out a 30-day time limit for judges to issue a ruling in a case. Though both laws leaned on the other, justices ruled only on the law regarding withholding pay.

The opinion came out of a 2011 child custody trial in Acadia Parish where Dionysia Huval Prejean fought her ex-husband over custody of their two sons.

The trial ended March 18, 2011, without 15th District Judge David Blanchet issuing a decision on custody, Bradford Felder, Huval’s attorney in the trial, said.

Huval said Monday that time was critical, and one month without a decision from Blanchet dragged into two, then three, then more.

And she was broke, she said, in debt tens of thousands of dollars to her attorney with no decision to show for it.

“My hands were tied,” Huval said. “I didn’t have any money to fight with.”

Felder told Huval about the mandamus laws on the books that she could ask an appellate court to enforce dealing with overdue rulings, Huval said.

The only hitch was that she would have to pursue the appeal on her own, called “pro se” in the legal world.

“I went to the library and started looking for information,” Huval said.

She filed a petition on July 12 seeking to get Blanchet to rule, Huval and Felder said. On July 13, the judge gave custody to her ex-husband, they said.

Huval later filed for a writ of mandamus, which contained the two state laws including the 1864 pay-docking law, seeking to withhold some of Blanchet’s salary from him, but was denied by 15th District Judge Edward Rubin.

Huval appealed to the state 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal, which struck down the pay-withholding law, then she took it to the Supreme Court.

High court justices wrote that they had problems with the way the law mandates action against judges without allowing them to give reasons for delays.

“The mandatory nature of (the law) could lead to absurd results,” reads a footnote in the opinion. “For example, if the judge’s failure to render judgment was due to circumstances beyond the judge’s control” such as a natural disaster.

The Supreme Court also found that the constitution prohibited the Legislature from writing laws dealing with sanctions against the judiciary, according to the opinion.

“It is well settled that the constitution vests the Supreme Court with exclusive original jurisdiction over judicial disciplinary cases,” the opinion states.

Felder said overdue decisions are a problem in many court cases such as the custody battle Huval went through.

He said judge’s delays in issuing rulings in personal injury cases are expensive because, in some cases, interest accrues for years before a judge releases a ruling.