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Legislators unwilling to change laws ignoring court rulings

Louisiana lawmakers declined to recommend changes to a law that can bar cities and towns from paying judgments against them in court.

In a 7-3 decision Tuesday, the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedures recommended making no changes to a provision in the Louisiana constitution that says state agencies and all political subdivisions can be sued and lose — but still themselves can refuse to pay money judgments.

The committee met to consider proposed constitutional amendments, as called for in a resolution authored by Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, last year.

According to the constitution, civil courts can only be paid if the state legislature or the political sub-departments specially appropriate or set aside the money. This provision has been the subject of widespread debate among politicians and frustration for plaintiffs who have waited decades for payouts that may never come.

If the losing party in a court case refuses to pay, the victorious party can usually ask the sheriff to seize the loser’s property. But in 1960, the state legislature amended the constitution to create an exception for lawsuits against government agencies.

Even with serious injuries or gross negligence on the part of state employees, victims can win millions in court but have no way of actually collecting the money.

Rep. Robby Carter, D-Amite, said some Louisiana government agencies took advantage of the situation.

“I know for a fact that some government agencies, including the City of New Orleans, are accumulating these judgments,” Carter said. “Then they’ll say, ‘Okay, who’s willing to take a percentage of their judgment to get paid? We’re going to pay some of them… We’re going to pay those who are willing to take the biggest discount.’”

Carter, an attorney, urged his colleagues on the committee to consider changing the provision. Such a change would require a two-thirds majority in the Legislature and the approval of a majority of the statewide electorate.

However, it could cause big problems if suddenly all government property and money is available. Committee chair Rep. Greg Miller, R-Norco, said the provision expresses a basic law, whether people agree with it or not.

“So when there’s a judgment against the state, someone can’t come and confiscate Huey Long out front and demand that the sheriff publicly sell it to the highest bidder to pay for that judgment,” Miller said, referring to it to the statue of the former governor on the State Capitol lawn.

Carter agreed that the provision was enshrined in the Constitution, but said lawmakers should propose changes that could give plaintiffs some relief.

Prior to the 1960 amendment, the Constitution permitted the confiscation of government property not serving a public purpose. Right now, a plaintiff who wins a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the state of Louisiana won’t collect a penny unless lawmakers want them to pay.