A disagreement over who calls the legal shots for St. Tammany Parish government might itself be headed to court, according to recent correspondence between state Attorney General Jeff Landry and 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery.
Landry acknowledged receiving Montgomery’s request for an opinion on whether recent parish government actions regarding legal representation conflict with St. Tammany’s home rule charter. But the attorney general, in office for only a month, refused to provide an opinion, citing his office’s longtime policy against doing so when litigation appears likely.
The district attorney and parish officials have been at odds over the issue of who controls the parish’s in-house lawyers for months.
The parish charter says the District Attorney’s Office is supposed to provide legal representation for parish government. Under Montgomery’s predecessor, Walter Reed, the parish attorneys were considered assistant district attorneys, but their day-to-day supervision was left to parish officials.
After Montgomery took office, the Parish Council tried to codify that practice by proposing a charter amendment that would have absolved the district attorney of the duty to provide legal representation to the parish. But parish voters soundly rejected the proposal, and Montgomery has since made several statements indicating that he intends to exert his authority over the 10 assistant district attorneys who work for the parish.
He repeated that point in his request for an attorney general’s opinion. “The voters rejected a change in the law,” he wrote in the Jan. 19 letter. “I am obligated to enforce the law, and it is unfair to the voters to not enforce the existing law.”
His letter called the matter an “ongoing source of friction” among himself, Parish President Pat Brister and the Parish Council and asked for an expedited response to his request. “It is unhealthy for us to continue this disagreement,” he said.
A Brister letter to Landry, also dated Jan. 19, said that for 17 years, the parish government’s legal department has operated without interference from the District Attorney’s Office.
She called that arrangement necessary to serve the citizens.
“Up until now, Mr. Montgomery agreed that the parish president should have the ability to direct the administrative side of the legal department,” she wrote.
However, she said, in recent weeks, Montgomery “has made numerous statements which contradict his prior position and, in fact, he indicated that if parish government does not completely relinquish control of the ... legal department to the district attorney, litigation is an option.”
Based on that, she asked Landry not to issue an opinion and cited his office’s policy of declining to do so “when litigation is actual or even threatened.”
While the exchange of letters seems to indicate that the dispute is coming to a head, the two sides are continuing to meet.
Parish Council Chairman Marty Dean said he and Councilman Richard Tanner were scheduled to sit down with a representative from Montgomery’s office Thursday.
Ronnie Simpson, spokesman for the Brister administration, said “very amicable discussions” are ongoing between the two sides.
“The discussions have been very productive, and we hope that there is a solution out there,” Simpson said. “And we hope that we will get there soon.”
Montgomery said he also wants to resolve the matter amicably. “However, I also have an obligation to enforce the law,” he said. “Hopefully, this can be resolved without litigation.”