Any lawyer who has tried a lawsuit in Louisiana can testify to the fact that much of the work done by the judges is, in reality, performed by law clerks under the judges’ supervision. This close relationship is now under attack in a business lawsuit that dates back to 2015, in which the plaintiff is asserting that law clerks are not shielded by judicial immunity in the same way that judges are.
In this lawsuit, the plaintiff claims that the defendant, a law clerk, willfully concealed papers that he filed and the judges willfully concealed her actions. The original lawsuit was an action between the plaintiff and his former business partner. Because all of the judges in the Fourth Judicial District were named as parties, the Louisiana Supreme Court assigned the case to a retired judge for all proceedings. The judge ruled that the plaintiff’s suit had no merit, to both the law clerk and the judges of the Fourth District. In upholding the clerk’s claim of immunity, the judge observed that “what law clerks do is what judges do.”
The plaintiff appealed this ruling to the Second Circuit Court of Appeal in Shreveport, but seven of the circuit’s nine judges recused themselves from the case. The matter was then assigned to the First Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge. After hearing two oral arguments in the case, the court reversed the ruling granting immunity to the law clerk but upheld the ruling granting immunity to the judges of the Fourth District. Both parties appealed the portions of the ruling that were adverse to them to the Louisiana Supreme Court, where the case now rests pending arguments later in 2019.
The case raises interesting questions for lawyers, judges, law clerks and – not incidentally – for clients. Judges are plainly and properly immune from any action that they take concerning a specific case. But, are all judges in a single courthouse immune from allegations of impropriety in another case? And, are law clerks immune from claims that they acted improperly in handling the papers in a case? What about clients? How can their interests be properly protected against overly broad claims of judicial immunity? If you have questions regarding judicial immunity, it may be wise to seek the advice of an attorney.