(CN) - Noting that Louisiana law protects judiciary compensation, the state Supreme Court struck down a law that penalizes judges for not rendering judgments within 30 days.
La. R.S. 13:4210 improperly required judges to forfeit one quarter's salary for failing to render judgment within 30 days of the close of trial. Though it has been law since 1884, it has been rarely invoked, the court found.
Dionysia Prejean had sought to apply the law against a judge who did not render judgment in that time frame during her child custody case, which concluded trial in March 2011.
An Acadia district court refused to withhold the judge's salary, and an appellate panel affirmed, raising questions about the law's constitutionality.
One concurring member of the panel tried to avoid the constitutional question by noting that General Administrative Rules permits district judges to provide an explanation for his or her failure to comply with these time limits for rendering judgment.
The judge handling the Prejean custody case would not have penalized under this standard since there was a reasonable explanation for the delay and anticipated date for rendition of judgment.
But the Supreme Court said last week that this standard would still fail under the challenged law since it "mandates" the withholding of salary.
"Although the concurring judge's attempt to harmonize La. R.S. 13:4210 within the constitutional structure is commendable, this approach actually reveals an unresolvable conflict between the statute and the constitutional authority of this court," the unsigned decision states. "Specifically, nothing in La. R.S. 13:4210 provides that the judge may provide an explanation for the judge's failure to render a judgment within the required time limits.
The justices also said that reducing a judge's salary without notice violates due process rights, and that Louisiana Constitution empowers the state Supreme Court alone to regulate judicial conduct.
"Pursuant to this authority, we have disciplined judges who delayed rendering decisions in a timely fashion, by suspending them without pay," the ruling states. "Thus, insofar as La. R.S. 13:4210 constitutes a form of judicial discipline, it clearly usurps powers which the constitution grants exclusively to this court."
Furthermore, La. Const. Art. V, § 21 holds that "the term of office, retirement benefits, and compensation of a judge shall not be decreased during the term for which he is elected,'" according to the ruling (emphasis in original).
"In the instant case, the effect of a partial forfeiture of a judge's salary would result in a decrease of compensation of the judge during the term for which he was elected," the justices added.
Later the court clarified that its finding "will in no way alter the obligation of district judges to render judgments timely, and adhere to the reporting requirements set forth in General Administrative Rule."