Two recent Louisiana Supreme Court decisions have sent a clear message to the lower courts (in particular to the Third Circuit Court of Appeal): “Adjudicate, don’t legislate.”
In the first of those decisions, Oliver v. Magnolia Clinic, the majority told the lower courts that “trial courts and courts of appeal are bound to follow the last expression of law of the Louisiana Supreme Court.” In this case, the lower courts had not. The opinion went on to revisit its reasoning in a prior case to remind the courts of their obligation to follow the latest expression of law regarding the constitutionality of the state’s $500,000 cap on medical malpractice claims.
The court was careful to acknowledge both the primacy of the legislation and the limits of its own role. “Our job,” the court wrote, “as a court tasked with reviewing laws, is to ensure statutes are free of constitutional infirmities. Once satisfied that legislation does not infringe upon constitutional rights, any other perceived infirmity is to be addressed by the legislature.”
In the second opinion, Arabie v. Citgo Petroleum Corporation, the Supreme Court again took the district court and Third Circuit Court of Appeal to task for their far-reaching decisions which would have given punitive damages (in addition to their compensatory damages) to 14 plaintiffs. These decisions were rendered, even though the Louisiana Legislature had specifically repealed a punitive damage provision in 1996. The plaintiffs had asserted that, because CITGO’s corporate management had been headquarted in Tulsa—and then moved to Houston—and had made corporate decisions from those states, Oklahoma and Texas laws which allowed for punitive damages should trump Louisiana’s absent law.
However, the court said: “As we have previously discussed, the legislature has seen fit to authorize punitive damages only in certain specific instances. The fact that punitive damages are only authorized in particular situations shows that the State has a general policy against punitive damages.” And the opinion went on to dispel the notion that punitive damages should be awarded because of an out-of-state law under a conflict of law theory.
What a refreshing idea: leaving “lawmaking” to the “lawmakers.” Unfortunately, until relatively recently it was a novel idea in many of our appellate courts—including the state Supreme Court—that legislating from the bench wasn’t the prerogative of the judiciary. Over the last several decades, the Supreme Court has handed down many decisions creating law from judicial fiat or changing the intent of legislative acts. The current Supreme Court, to its credit, is reversing that trend.
These two decisions, though quite dissimilar, are the Supreme Court’s messages back to the lower courts that the job of the state’s judges is to interpret the law as written and intended by the Legislature, not to make new law.
If the lower courts pay attention to the Supreme Court whose rulings they are obligated to follow, it could be an indication that Louisiana is on its way to an improved judicial climate where businesses and individuals can operate with predictability based on the laws written by the Legislature.