LAKE CHARLES – Change is inevitable and 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal Chief Judge Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux has seen plenty of it in his years spent on the bench.
Thibodeaux recently was interviewed for the June/July issue of the Louisiana Bar Journal about his career and his outlook on the legal system. Thibodeaux said he graduated from Tulane Law School in 1975 and began his legal career with the Legal Defense Fund in New York City as an intern/attorney. He focused primarily on fair employment, housing, school desegregation and capital punishment issues.
“I assisted in briefing the Roberts v. Louisiana brief to the United States Supreme Court while with the Legal Defense Fund,” he said in the interview. “I returned to Lake Charles and began a 2.5-year stint with the Calcasieu Parish district attorney’s office under the leadership of Frank Salter. While there, I tried both misdemeanor and felony jury cases. I went into full-time private practice with Newman & Thibodeaux in 1980-1992.”
Thibodeaux also said in the interview that he focused equally on personal injury and criminal defense, with some civil right litigation added on occasion. He did not initially have plans to become a judge, but a seat on the 3rd Circuit court was open and he ran unopposed. He now serves as a chief justice of the court.
Despite the progress he has seen over the years, Thibodeaux said he also sees many challenges, mainly those associated with money, and a lack of judge and jury trial experience.
“The influence of money in judicial elections has become particularly egregious after the United States opinion in citizens,” he told the Louisiana Bar Journal. “The quality and the representation on our courts will become a matter of who can raise and spend the most money in influencing our electorate.”
Thibodeaux said that he is concerned with the level of public cynicism about the legal profession and the judicial system as a threat.
“The public needs to see the law as something that is vibrant and helpful, and not something that is threatening,” Thibodeaux said in his interview with the Louisiana Bar Journal. “It is incumbent upon lawyers and judges to restore confidence in the vitality of our law.
On a more positive note, Thibodeaux said that he has seen two drastic changes since he has been practicing law. The use of expanded technology and an increase in diversity have been considerable.
"This expanded use has facilitated ease of research and has enhanced the quality of presentation before appellate court panels,” he said in the interview. “Our system of document management at the appellate court enables attorneys to get voluminous records on disks at a very nominal charge as opposed to dealing with tons of paperwork. We also have seen the use of hyperlinked briefs, which greatly assist the court in accessing documents, cases and codal authority relied upon by the attorneys, deposition excerpts and even video presentations via a brief.”
With regards to diversity, Thibodeaux said it was virtually non-existent when he started practicing.
“For example, there were only six black judges in the entire state of Louisiana in 1988,” he said in the interview. “Four of those judges were in Orleans Parish; only two were not. Today, there are 82 black elected jurists in Louisiana. That number represents the highest number of minority judges on a proportionate basis than any other state in the country, and we should be proud of that.”
He also explained that there are also more women on the court and that this new diversity is "very healthy" for the state and the bar association.
“The increase in visibility has inspired a search for role models among minority and female youth," he told the Louisiana Bar Journal. “The enlarged visibility of black attorneys and judges and female attorneys and judges adds to the appearance of fairness in our judicial system. It gives legitimacy to the system in the eyes of those who have been previously marginalized.”