Mayor Mitch Landrieu has gained some support in his legal battle with New Orleans firefighters seeking $142 million in back pay and interest.
The support comes from three groups representing Louisiana local governments that — if Landrieu loses his appeal of a judge’s order sentencing him to weekend house arrest — could find their members facing similar threats of being held in contempt of court or put under house arrest.
In an “amicus” brief filed with the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, the Louisiana Municipal Association, Police Jury Association of Louisiana and Louisiana Conference of Mayors all argued that a Civil District Court judge’s ruling that threatened to confine Landrieu to his house on weekends unless the city submitted an acceptable plan to pay the firefighters’ debt infringes on the separation of powers among branches of government.
The brief echoes Landrieu’s own arguments that Judge Kern Reese exceeded his authority when he held the city in contempt in the decades-old case earlier this month. The state Supreme Court put a hold on Reese’s order Sept. 11 just minutes before Landrieu was expected to submit to house arrest.
City appeals of Reese’s order are pending before the 4th Circuit and the Supreme Court.
The brief from the three municipal groups argues that the courts cannot order a local government to pay a specific judgment because that would usurp the City Council’s role in determining how city money is spent.
“The district court, through the judgment of contempt that places the mayor under house arrest, if the New Orleans City Council does not act to reasonably resolve the payment of a judgment against the city, entangled itself in a very serious separation of powers issue,” according to the brief.
The filing cites a case that began in 2000, when a group of coroners filed suit against the state for supplemental pay that was mandated by law but never paid by the state. In that case, the state Supreme Court ruled that those with judgments against a government unit in the state cannot force it to pay.
The court said a provision in the state constitution protects government money or assets from being seized to pay a judgment. The only way a judgment can be paid is if the government appropriates the funds itself.
“The district court’s judgment of contempt, if allowed to stand, is a violation of the separation of powers set forth in the Louisiana Constitution and will have a significant impact ... relative to whether courts can enforce judgments against political subdivisions while wholly abandoning the constitutional mandate for the state Legislature or municipal council at issue to appropriate the funds to satisfy the specific judgment at issue,” according to the brief.
The brief says the issue is of “great concern” to the three groups’ members, which include the governments of all 64 parishes, 300 municipalities and numerous mayors throughout the state.
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