GAROFALO: Improving Citizen Access To Louisiana Courts

Editor’s Note: A guest post by Rep. Raymond Garofalo (R-Chalmette).

Most Louisiana citizens believe they have an automatic right to a trial before a jury of their peers, but some may be surprised to learn that is not always true.  In criminal cases, the Louisiana constitution guarantees citizens that right.  However, current Louisiana law dictates that in civil cases, any claim under $50,000 must be decided by a judge.

The practical impact of this unique law, known as the jury trial threshold, is that many citizens are being denied their fundamental right to a trial before a jury.  In fact, studies show less than 2 percent of all civil lawsuits result in a jury trial in Louisiana today—a number that has been steadily declining over the last 5 years.  This is an unhealthy trend for those truly seeking justice from the legal system.

Citizen access and input is absolutely necessary to preserve and maintain the integrity of our courts. Our Founding Fathers knew that—that’s why the right to have disputes decided by a panel of fellow citizens was explicitly cited in the Declaration of Independence and confirmed in the U.S. Constitution.  Today, most state constitutions also reflect this fundamental principle. Louisiana’s Constitution is one of only two in the country that is silent on the right to a jury trial.

This unfortunate omission allowed former Governor Edwin Edwards to sign legislation into law, largely at the behest of the Louisiana Trial Lawyers Association, to raise the state’s jury trial threshold to $50,000 back in 1993.  Louisiana citizens have suffered ever since as access to our courts has become more restrictive.

A recent analysis of civil jury trial limits across the country found that 36 states have no threshold for civil jury trials, and among the 14 states that do, Louisiana’s threshold is, by far, the highest in the nation. At $50,000, Louisiana’s jury trial threshold is roughly more than 28 times the national average.

This unusually high threshold serves as an example of how Louisiana law is far out of alignment with most other states, and it contributes to the negative perception of our state as a “judicial hellhole.”  By encouraging unnecessary and sometimes meritless litigation, it also increases the cost of every-day goods and services—especially when it comes to our car insurance rates.

The bottom line is we can no longer afford the costs and consequences of this misguided law.  That’s why I introduced HB 917 to eliminate Louisiana’s jury trial threshold.  Citizen access to our courts is imperative to the function of our democracy, and it should not be limited.  Furthermore, Louisiana drivers deserve some relief from ever-escalating car insurance rates.  That’s the goal of these common sense reforms, and I hope you will join me in supporting them.

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