North shore District Attorney Warren Montgomery is continuing a long-running court battle with St. Tammany Parish officials over who controls the government's legal representation, now asking the Louisiana Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue.
The DA for the 22nd Judicial District filed his request with the high court Wednesday, a month after the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal upheld a lower court ruling that the parish government has the authority to maintain a legal department separate from Montgomery's office.
A court battle over who should provide legal representation for St. Tammany Parish governmen…
In his filing, Montgomery said the parish illegally attempted to amend its home rule charter by passing ordinances that altered the role of the DA and created an independent legal department. The parish had failed to get those changes approved legally at the ballot box when voters rejected a charter amendment, he said.
Parish President Pat Brister said she was disappointed by the DA's decision to continue the legal fight.
"The parish government has won this argument twice with three different judges in two different courts," Brister said, alluding to the initial ruling in 22nd Judicial District Court and the 2-1 decision rendered by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal last month.
The parish government has been conducting its legal business independently for at least 17 years, she said, adding that the DA's opposition astonishes her. "It irks me that he chooses me to sue on this issue," she said.
When the matter first arose, she said, Montgomery told her that he just wanted a judge to rule on the question. Now that's happened twice, she said. "He just didn't like the answer."
Montgomery said he believes what he is doing is right. "The people of St. Tammany voted against these proposals," he said Thursday. "The chief justice of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal dissented from the court’s decision, and 25 district attorneys from around the state disagreed with the court’s ruling and have joined in legal action to overturn that decision. The Louisiana Supreme Court will have the final say-so."
Montgomery and parish officials began wrangling over the question of the parish's legal business in 2015 when the proposed charter revision went to voters. Montgomery said at the time that he supported an independent legal department for the parish president but not for the Parish Council. Voters soundly defeated the amendment.
The dispute continued, however, with Montgomery insisting that the charter puts him in charge of all parish legal business. Parish officials said the charter provision simply means the DA can't refuse to represent the parish if asked to do so, not that he has the sole right to represent it.
Montgomery filed suit in April 2016 asking the court to recognize his "legal rights, duties and obligations'' to provide general legal counsel to the administration, the council and all parish boards and commissions and to block the parish from operating a civil legal department.
An ad hoc judge in 22nd Judicial District Court ruled in favor of the parish in September 2016, and last month, the 1st Circuit affirmed Judge Marion F. Edwards' ruling that parish government officials have the right to choose their own lawyers.
Edwards said the parish acted within its authority in establishing a legal department and that forcing Brister and the Parish Council to accept Montgomery as their sole legal adviser would hurt their ability to work together for the benefit of St. Tammany residents.
Montgomery appealed Edwards' ruling.
In affirming that ruling, the 1st Circuit said the parish has had independent legal representation since 2007, despite Montgomery's argument that the attorneys who worked for the parish were assistant district attorneys with official commissions.
Among other points, the appellate court majority said that the parish president and council reorganized local government, a power that they have under the home rule charter.
But Chief Judge Vanessa Whipple, who dissented, argued that the authority to reorganize "may not be used to effectively usurp the power and duties of the district attorney as set forth by legislation."
Whipple pointed to language in the parish ordinance establishing the legal department, which said that the DA is to serve "upon the request" of parish government. That conflicts with the district attorney's right and duty under state law to serve as the regular attorney for the parish, she said.
In his writ to the state Supreme Court, Montgomery argues that the length of time that the parish has handled its own legal matters doesn't matter. "Past non-compliance with the law does not abrogate the law," he said.
The lower courts, in their rulings, effectively sanctioned amending a home rule charter by ordinance without a vote of the people, Montgomery said, calling that a violation of the state constitution.