Gov. Edwards’ good ol’ boy approach to litigation lands Louisiana on U.S. ‘Judicial Hellholes’ list
BATON ROUGE, LA— Gov. John Bel Edwards’ controversial push to hire his top campaign supporters to represent the state in lawsuits potentially worth billions of dollars earned Louisiana a spot on the American Tort Reform Foundation’s (ATRF) annual “Judicial Hellholes” list.
According to the 2016-2017 report released today, the Pelican State is the nation’s seventh-worst Judicial Hellhole. In explaining the ranking, the report cited numerous ongoing challenges and abuses of the state’s civil justice system—from lax laws that allow for venue shopping to a plethora of plaintiff-friendly judges and justices elected by the trial bar with out-sized influence. Featured most prominently in the report, however, is Gov. Edwards’ ongoing effort to hire his top political supporters in litigation to shakedown the oil and gas industry for billions of dollars to restore the state’s eroding coast.
“The governor has unilaterally and, according to some critics, unlawfully sought to hire some of the state’s wealthiest plaintiffs’ lawyers to run the energy industry-targeting litigation,” the report noted. “That these same private-sector lawyers also contributed generously to the governor’s campaign smells of the same pay-to-play cronyism that brought down the state’s previous attorney general.”
The report cited local news coverage of a cozy arrangement quietly authorized by the Edwards administration to enroll Taylor Townsend, a trial attorney and former lawmaker, as lead counsel in the state’s case. Townsend served as co-chair of Edwards’ transition team and chair of the governor’s fundraising super PAC, Louisiana Families First. In his small town private law practice, Townsend specializes in criminal defense and personal injury cases, not complex environmental litigation.
Townsend and the team of attorneys subcontracted under him collectively contributed $130,000 to Edwards’ campaign and transition team last year.
“This good ol’ boy approach to state litigation undermines public trust in our system and contributes to the nagging reputation that Louisiana is a judicial hellhole,” said Melissa Landry of the legal watchdog group Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch. “Like it or not, that’s the perception and perceptions matter—especially when we’re competing on the national and global stage for jobs and investments.”
What’s more, Gov. Edwards’ propensity for hiring his friends and supporters in state legal matters is not limited to the high profile coastal litigation.
Local media has reported that Townsend was awarded a separate $75,000 legal contract to represent the Louisiana State Police Commission and investigate possible improper campaign donations to Gov. Edwards and other politicians. Similarly, the wife of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, who played a significant role in Gov. Edwards’ election, was awarded a lucrative no-bid contract to do legal work on behalf of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District.
In addition, numerous elected officials have openly questioned the governor’s attempt to skirt state laws that preclude him from hiring private outside counsel on a contingency fee basis.
“Gov. Edwards’ ongoing effort to leverage state litigation for the benefit of his political supporters is bad enough, but the administration’s blatant attempt to use contingency fee contracts to do it is even worse,” Landry said.
“The law requires private lawyers working on behalf of the state to be paid reasonable hourly rates,” Landry said. “But under the administration’s proposed contracts, the attorneys could potentially reap billions in legal fees off state litigation. Does that suit the best interests of the public or the governor’s lawyers?
Louisiana is the only state in the Southwest region on the 2016-2017 Judicial Hellholes list. The City of St. Louis, Missouri garnered the top spot this year, followed by California, New York, South Florida, New Jersey, and several counties in Illinois.
The full text of ATRF’s Judicial Hellholes report can be viewed at judicialhellholes.org. For more information about LLAW’s efforts to restore common sense and fairness to Louisiana courts, visit LLAW.org.