Arguing that the state Senate gamed the open meetings law, lawyers for laid-off workers Tuesday asked a state appellate court to uphold two lower court's invalidation of a resolution that led to the closing of a charity hospital more than three years ago.
Senate and LSU lawyers countered that the law allows the Legislature to change committee meeting agendas without following the same notification procedures required of other state agencies.
Judges on the panel at the First Court of Appeal questioned those rules, but commented that the Senate had the authority to write the rules and appeared to have followed them in April 2014. A Senate committee quietly added to the agenda late in the afternoon before its scheduled meeting that it planned to consider Senate Concurrent Resolution 48, which allowed for the closure of the LSU Huey P. Long Medical Center in Pineville three years ago.
“I have to admit that you may be within the rule, but it sure does smell,” Judge John T. Pettigrew, of Houma, told lawyers for the Senate and LSU.
John M. Parker Jr., representing LSU, argued that the rules don’t have detailed standards that have to be met, other than including the bill number to be considered.
Assistant Attorney General Patricia H. Wilton, arguing for the state Senate, said the state Constitution gives the Legislature the authority to write and enforce its own rules.
J. Arthur Smith III, representing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 17, contended that the Senate Health & Welfare Committee hurried SCR48 to avoid alerting opponents who would have driven down from central Louisiana to argue vociferously against closing the hospital. As it was, the resolution was heard and passed without objection in about 10 minutes.
“If we don’t have notification, then what we have is legislation that is done in secret,” Smith argued.
Another of the attorneys representing workers who had lost their jobs, Christopher J. Roy, also was part of the convention in the 1970s that rewrote the Louisiana Constitution to give the Legislature authority to draft its own rules. He said Senate leadership cynically maneuvered through those rules to help the Jindal administration to privatize charity hospitals around the state without attracting too much loud protest. Then Gov. Bobby Jindal used no-bid contracts to privatize nine hospitals operated by LSU to care for the poor.
Judge John Michael Guidry, of Baton Rouge, pointed out that notice of the meeting was posted within the proper time periods and that legislative rules allow for changing what will be discussed at the meeting. “How can the courts, then, second-guess the reasonableness” of legislators who were following the rules, he added.
Judge William J. "Will" Crain, of Covington, also was on the panel. The judges will issue a decision in the future.
In mid-June 2014, 19th Judicial District Court Judge Robert Downing, of Baton Rouge, ruled that the Senate had violated the Open Meetings Law and issued an injunction to stop the hospital’s closure. "The manner in which the notice was posted of Senate Concurrent Resolution 48 was in violation of the open meetings law," Downing said.
His injunction was suspended during the appellate process. The Jindal administration moved ahead and on June 30, 2014 closed the facility that had opened in 1939. About 550 employees were laid off, according to accounts at the time.
The functions of the charity hospital were transferred to nearby private hospitals, CHRISTUS St. Frances Cabrini Hospital and Rapides Regional Medical Center. The Jindal administration said closing the charity hospital would improve the health care for the 16 parishes in central Louisiana.
When the appeal returned to the 19th Judicial District Court, Judge Donald Johnson in June 2016 found the resolution “null and void.” He said the employees could seek fees, costs and expenses.
Smith and Roy said Tuesday it wouldn’t be practical to reopen the charity hospital three years it was closed, if the appellate court upholds Johnson’s ruling. But the workers who were laid off, particularly those who couldn’t find other employment, should be entitled to back pay.