Founded in 1813, Louisiana's court system is made up of many components. It's important to know where to begin.
The lowest-level courts in the state have jurisdiction strictly limited to specific types of cases. They do not conduct jury trials and the presiding officer is generally a magistrate or elected official rather than a sworn judge. Cases heard at this level may be appealed to district courts.
There are about 390 justice of the peace courts in Louisiana, which handle traffic issues, property cases valued at less than $3,000 and small claims up to $2,000. Justices of the peace are selected in partisan elections and serve for four-year terms.
Mayor's courts hear small claims and traffic issues and may impose fines and even imprisonment as punishment. There are approximately 250 mayor's courts in the state.
Municipal courts have limited jurisdiction, including violations of city ordinances and civil cases under $15,000. They do not conduct jury trials.
City courts have jurisdiction over civil cases between $5,000 and $15,000, violations of city ordinances, and some criminal matters. They also serve as juvenile courts in areas where no dedicated juvenile court exists. The state's 68 city court judges are elected by voters to six-year terms. These courts are slowly replacing justice of the peace and mayor's courts in some areas. There are currently more than 45 city courts across the state. Together, city and parish courts saw more than 830,000 cases in 2013.
Parish courts are staffed by full-time judges and have jurisdiction over misdemeanor, traffic, small claims, and family law cases including juvenile issues. They handle civil cases up to $10,000 and may impose fines of $1,000 or sentences of imprisonment for up to six months. There are three parish courts with 5 judges in the state.
There is one family court in the state, located in East Baton Rouge. Four judges handle different divisions of this court, which presides over divorce, child custody and some delinquency issues.
Juvenile courts may be found in four locations across the state and have jurisdiction over issues regarding minors under the age of 17 including neglect, delinquency, and neglect. In areas without a juvenile court, cases may be heard by district or parish courts. These courts saw 13,962 juvenile cases in 2013.
Drug courts are rigorous programs designed to assist residents with drug dependency while diverting such cases from mainstream courts. There are 30 drug courts for adults and 17 for juveniles serving over 4,500 individuals throughout the state.
The state is divided into 42 judicial districts, each with its own district court. This court primarily conducts jury trials, including property disputes. District court judges are elected for six-year terms. District courts may hear criminal cases against juveniles being tried as adults when it is established that the juvenile is a habitual offender or if the crime is a serious felony, such as murder. Appeals of verdicts in civil cases from lower courts are also heard here.
The 236 district court judges are elected by voters and serve six-year terms. There were 733,805 cases filed in these courts in 2013, which represented a decrease of almost 6,000 civil cases but an increase of about 4,500 criminal cases. More than half of the total, over 400,000 cases, were traffic related.
There are five circuit courts of appeal in Louisiana with 53 judges. The number of judges on each circuit court varies. The judges sit in panels of three to review cases, primarily criminal and civil cases decided by state circuit courts and state agencies. The court also considers applications for writ, which are court orders, for instance, a writ of habeas corpus compels law enforcement to prove a person is being held for lawful reasons. Judges at this level are elected by voters to 10-year terms. In 2013 these courts received over 7,300 filings of cases and writ applications.
This is the highest court in the state, primarily charged with deciding the constitutionality of laws and hearing automatic appeals of all death penalty cases. The Supreme Court also hears appeals cases similar to the circuit courts of appeal, to determine if the law was applied appropriately in the verdict and sentencing. This court also oversees lower courts and the state bar, including discipline of attorneys and other judges.
Seven judges, elected from each of seven districts, sit on the Supreme Court for 10-year terms. The number of cases filed before the court has dropped in the past five years, to 2,365 in 2015 from over 3,000 in 2013, reflecting a general trend.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case of a Louisiana man sentenced to death for murder. Attorneys for the man argued that he was sentenced unconstitutionally – because the court in that parish of Shreveport where his case was tried has an inordinately high percentage of death penalty sentences despite a lower-than-average homicide rate for the state. A news article noted that the jury in the man's case, in which he was convicted of shooting his pregnant girlfriend, deliberated for only an hour.
An insurance company that failed to adjust clients' claims following Hurricane Katrina was taken to court by a class action suit in 2005. A number of clients of Louisiana Property Insurance Corp. sued the company for not responding to their claims within the state-mandated 30 day period. A district court decided in the clients' favor, awarding them about $93 million, but that decision was overturned by a circuit court of appeals that decided there was no proof the company acted in bad faith. The state Supreme Court later threw out the circuit court's decision, saying the company's inaction was proof enough, and reinstating the penalty imposed by the district court.