La. Supreme Court limits judges' international travel

The Louisiana Supreme Court is cracking down on judges using tax dollars to pay for exotic junkets.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson has signed an order that bans the use of public dollars for international travel for meetings, unless the travel is approved by the state Supreme Court. The judicial rule goes into effect May 1 for all Louisiana judges.

The rule was issued just a month after The Advocate reported about the frequent publicly funded travels of City Court Judge Yvette Alexander, who most recently spent a week in January at a judicial conference in Morocco.

Her 5,000-mile excursion cost taxpayers at least $2,898.

Between 2007 and 2012, Alexander took 37 trips and spent $52,704 in public funds.

Alexander, who was out of the office this week because her mother is ill, declined comment through court administrator Lon Norris.

Her travels have included two trips to Hawaii, two trips to Jamaica and visits to Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, the Virgin Islands and the West Indies. In 2002, Alexander went to Italy for a conference, spending $1,900 in public funds.

Although it is putting new rules in place, the Supreme Court’s definition of “international travel” is so generous that it is unlikely to have much of an impact on Alexander or any other judges’ travel habits.

Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean Islands and Central America are not considered international destinations, according to the Supreme Court rules.

Previously, Louisiana judges could seek reimbursement for international travel for annual and semiannual business meetings “including related continuing legal education meetings, of the American Bar Association, the National Bar Association and the Louisiana State Bar Association.”

Valerie Willard, a deputy judicial administrator for the Louisiana Supreme Court, said the rule change was not prompted by concerns about excessive travel by judges.

“Rules change all of the time,” she said. “They (Supreme Court justices) just felt like they needed to look at the rule.”

She said there’s no set criteria for how Supreme Court justices will decide when international travel will be allowed.

In 2012, The Advocate conducted a review of the five city court judges’ travel expenses, which are paid for from the East Baton Rouge city-parish budget, from 2007 to 2012.

Alexander traveled further and more frequently than any of her peers. She took a trip outside of the 48 contiguous states every year.

While the other City Court judges also engaged in travel for conferences, they rarely left the contiguous states. In 2007, Judge Laura Prosser Davis attended a conference in Vancouver, Canada. In 2008, Judge Alex “Brick” Wall traveled to Hawaii for a conference.

Information was not readily available on the extent to which state district court, appellate court and state Supreme Court judges have traveled outside the country at public expense to attend conferences or other purposes.

Alexander has previously said she has to travel because she serves as a chairwoman for the National Bar Association, which hosts many of the judicial conferences she attends.