Demand for family court forces changes in 21st JDC

Plans are under way to convert two divisions of the 21st Judicial District Court, which serves Livingston, Tangipahoa and St. Helena parishes, from general jurisdiction to family court.

The move would help divorce, custody and related cases flow more smoothly and efficiently through the court system, Chief Judge Bob Morrison said.

The district has nine divisions, eight of which hear all criminal and civil matters including family law cases. The ninth division is reserved for juvenile court matters, which include children in need of services and delinquency cases.

“The judges believe that family court matters involve special consideration and that by establishing dedicated family court divisions, the district can meet these needs more adequately,” Morrison said.

The district received legislative approval in 2011 to convert the Division H seat, held by Judge Zorraine Waguespack, from general jurisdiction to family court upon Waguespack’s retirement at the end of 2014.

More recently, following District Judge Ernie Drake’s election to the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal to fill the seat vacated by Jeff Hughes’ election to the Louisiana Supreme Court, the 21st Judicial District judges agreed to seek similar legislation to convert Drake’s Division G to family court as well, Morrison said.

“We believe with the increase we’ve seen in family court cases, one judge would not be able to handle the whole docket. We need two,” Morrison said.

The state Supreme Court will appoint a retired judge to fill Drake’s seat temporarily until a new judge can be elected, Morrison said. The primary will be held Oct. 19.

In the meantime, Waguespack has agreed to accept one half of the family court cases during her final year on the bench, beginning Jan. 1, 2014, Morrison said. The other half will be allotted, also beginning Jan. 1, to the Division G judge elected to fill Drake’s seat, he said.

“We can do that by court order,” Morrison said. “Supreme Court rules allow us to make that change for up to three years, but I have also put some language in the bill we have pending (for the 2013 Regular Session) specifically authorizing us to do it.”

All other civil and criminal cases previously allotted to Drake’s and Waguespack’s divisions will be randomly reassigned to the remaining six general jurisdiction divisions of the court, effective Jan. 1, Morrison said. None of the changes will impact Judge Blair Edwards’ juvenile division, which will retain its separate purpose, he said.

In addition to converting the Division G and H seats to family court, the district judges also are discussing whether and how to use hearing officers to help streamline family law cases.

“We’re pointing toward doing that, but we don’t have some of the details fleshed out yet,” Morrison said.

The hearing officers could hear the issues in each case, prior to the parties going before a judge, and make recommendations in an effort to resolve some of the less contentious issues, Morrison said.

“I think it’s very important that (the parties) have an opportunity to have their case heard by a judge,” he said. “But in so many cases, if the parents had just talked with each other before getting into the courtroom, some of the issues could have been resolved.

“Having a hearing officer would force people to talk to each other before they got to the judge,” he said.

The district’s current hearing officer primarily handles protective orders, child support and paternity cases. The officer’s recommendations become orders of the court unless a party timely objects and requests a hearing before a judge.