Sometimes you have to first look in the rear view mirror to clearly see the path ahead.
The New Year is upon us and it is only natural that most people begin to develop ambitious plans and resolutions to maximize the opportunities of 2015. Whether your focus will be about losing weight, getting healthy, starting a business or any other goal, it is wise to first take inventory of the past 12 months and look for guidance from that experience before taking the first step.
At LABI, we are already looking ahead to the important issues on the horizon and we will bring all resources to bear to ensure a positive business climate is protected and cultivated in our state. Next year, Louisiana will host a contentious legislative session in the spring and a spirited election cycle in the fall that will usher in a new governor and changing faces throughout the Legislature.
As 2015 arrives, my first inclination is to say thank you to our members for all of their support in 2014. Louisiana’s economy would be nowhere without their hard work throughout our state and LABI could not do what it does without the unwavering dedication of members who passionately believe in our mission to champion the principles of the free enterprise system. Their support, volunteer leadership and participation in the organization has made all the difference in the world – and all the difference in Louisiana. Our work empowers business and people to drive the future of this state – a noble cause and powerful motivator to do more.
We were able to enjoy significant success last year on a number of important issues – most notably on civil justice reform, which in recent weeks has garnered more national attention. In the 2014 legislative session, we prioritized lawsuit reform in order to improve the state’s judicial climate and reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits and the associated costs to the community – and the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) took notice.
Louisiana moved down in the rankings from No. 2 to No. 7 in ATRA’s annual Hellholes® Report released in December demonstrating fundamental improvements in Louisiana’s judicial environment. While much more work is to be done, this jump in the rankings is a clear sign that the reforms of 2014 put us on the right track and should serve as a roadmap for 2015.
Every year, the Judicial Hellholes® program identifies and documents jurisdictions where judges in civil cases systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner, generally to the disadvantage of defendants. Simply put, this is not a list we want to be on the top of and Louisiana has chronically placed at the top of this report as a state in need of substantial civil justice reform. The good news is that Louisiana is finally heading in the right direction and we must continue to do so.
What did we do last session to result in this new, and better ranking? At the urging of LABI members and our coalition partners, the Legislature adopted significant, positive civil justice reforms during the 2014 legislative session. The report praises several specific pieces of enacted legislation, including Act 796, which expressly prohibits the state’s use of contingency fee contracts, caps the rates that outside attorneys can be paid and establishes transparency in the process; Act 400, which strengthens legacy lawsuit reforms, discouraging frivolous claims, speeding up regulator cleanups prior to lengthy and costly litigation and creating a more predictable legal environment for all parties; and Act 544 which clarifies the governmental entities authorized to bring a lawsuit from activity regulated by state or federal coastal use permits. In time, we believe this law will effectively end the unauthorized lawsuit brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies that have operated with legal permits in the coastal zone for decades.
The above accomplishments helped move Louisiana’s ranking and our residents will benefit from the improved legal climate that comes with it. The recent report demonstrates what we can accomplish if we simply identify our problems and have the courage to address them. Building on the successes of the 2014 legislative session, LABI and our members are emboldened and more determined than ever to improve the Louisiana judicial system and bring a fair and balanced legal environment to businesses and taxpayers alike.
National-recognition came from other groups as well. The U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) honored LABI and its coalition partners with its Outstanding Organization Award in recognition of its history of supporting legal reform and its successful efforts to pass important legislation during the 2014 session.
We look forward to building on this exciting momentum because there is more work to be done. An obvious next step for Louisiana is to bring increased transparency and accountability to the judiciary. Our government works best when we have three separate, but equal, branches of government that are all accountable to the taxpayers. Over the last few years, reforms that increase transparency in budgeting and enhance ethical requirements for public officials have passed for the Executive and Legislative branches.
Unfortunately, all too often, the Judiciary has not been held to these same standards and our taxpayers’ ability to monitor the budgeting and ethical standards for the legal system has suffered due to this disparity in treatment.
We know we will also need to address other obvious civil justice deficiencies, including lowering the nation’s highest threshold for a civil jury trial, improving venue provisions to ensure lawsuits are filed where damages actually occurred and other common-sense reforms. These changes will reduce our costs, empower taxpayers, push us further down the Judicial Hellholes® list and make us more competitive for jobs and investment from other states.
On behalf of our member companies across the state, LABI advanced some of the most substantial legal reforms in the nation this year. In 2015 and every year thereafter until reform is complete, LABI will work with the Louisiana Legislature on policy and legal solutions and strive to elect legislators, judges and others that put the rights of the people first – as it should be.
As we look to 2015, we look to our mission with a strong sense of accomplishment and renewed vigor and we invite all to join us as we work to ensure a more competitive business climate and more prosperous future for Louisiana.
Stephen Waguespack is President of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.