KITTY KIMBALL, CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE LOUISIANA SUPREME COURT, DISCUSSES HOW THE LOUISIANA SUPREME COURT WORKS

Locke Meredith: Hello, I’m Locke Meredith and I’d like to invite you to join me on the next Legal Lines where we are pleased to have on the show Justice Kitty Kimball. She is a Justice on the Louisiana Supreme Court. She was the first female Judge in the States history. She is going to talk to us about how the Supreme Court works. So join us on the next Legal Lines with Justice Kitty Kimball.

 

Locke Meredith: Welcome to Legal Lines, I’m Locke Meredith and I’m very pleased to have on the show Judge Kitty Kimball. She is a Justice with the Louisiana Supreme Court. Justice Kimball, thank you so much for being on Legal Lines.

Kitty Kimball: Thank you for having me.

Locke Meredith: If you don’t mind, just tell the folks a little bit about yourself just so they know where you are coming from.

Kitty Kimball: Ok. Well I graduated from LSU Law School. I grew up in Alexandria, clerked for a Federal Judge, was the Lawyer for the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and then I went into private practice, I was an Assistant DA, was a District Judge for ten years and decided to move on up to the Supreme Court and I’ve been there as a Justice for that Court for sixteen years.

Locke Meredith: So really it sounds like you’ve experienced the legal system from not the bottom up but the lower side of it to the upper side of it. Tell the folks as an Assistant DA what that entailed.

Kitty Kimball: Well, you know the prosecution of crimes obviously. I was an Assistant DA over in the 18th Judicial District.

Locke Meredith: That’s a lot of work.

Kitty Kimball: It is a lot of work. I did a lot with trying to collect Child Support from people who did not have their child support payments done. I really didn’t do felony prosecution. I didn’t do it for very long because people came to me about running for District Judge and I did that and I absolutely loved it.

Locke Meredith: And your private practice, what was it?

Kitty Kimball: I was in private practice for five years.

Locke Meredith: And what was the nature of that?

Kitty Kimball: In New Roads it was well not rural, but it was a lot more rural in those days so I did everything from representing Pacific Railroad to climbing up and inspecting grain elevators. You kind of did a lot of things in a rural community.

Locke Meredith: And then you ran for District Judge, 18th JDC and you were there for…

Kitty Kimball: Ten years.

Locke Meredith: Explain to folks. Because basically we have the Trial Court Level, The Intermediate Appellate Court Level, and then we have The Louisiana Supreme Court. We have thirty two District Trial Courts. Explain to the folks what a trial court does.

Kitty Kimball: It differs a little bit depending on where you are. Here in Baton Rouge for instance the Judges do different kinds of things from what we did on our side. There are Judges here that handle civil work, there are Judges here that handle only Criminal work, there are Judges in the Juvenile Court who handle only Juvenile work and then there is The Family Court that handles all of the family matters. On our side of the river, which is Pointe Coupee, West Baton Rouge and Iberville each Judge handled all of those kinds of matters.

Locke Meredith: You were handling everything. Expertises in I guess everything. Challenging.

Kitty Kimball: It is but I personally kind of like that. It gave you a lot of variety in what you did. I may have been trying a murder case one day and helping a child who has been abused and neglected the next day. It kept the variety, which I liked.

Locke Meredith: In my mind, it seems like the law has become so complicated in all these different areas, so you really have to focus on those to make sure that you are doing your job correctly. What you are telling me is I guess when it is not an overwhelming case load; you would prefer to do it that way.

Kitty Kimball: I personally liked it that way. Of course as you suggest, the case load in our District was much, much less than in Baton Rouge. There is certainly something to be said about Judges who are specializing in one specific area or not.  I think a lot of it has to do with…

Locke Meredith: It has to do with efficiency right?

Kitty Kimball: Part of it is efficiency. I think a lot of it to has to do with the Judge. For myself, I would be bored to death if I did nothing but criminal work, or family work. I liked the variety because you know it made me want to get up and go to work everyday because it was always something different.

Locke Meredith: That’s interesting because in your history you have handled all the gambits and that is exactly what you would need on the Supreme Court because you are going to deal with every issue that the law deals with.

Kitty Kimball: That’s right. I really thought that being the General Jurisdiction Judge served me really well when I went to The Supreme Court for that very reason. We may be dealing with a death case one minute and a public service case the next. We may be dealing with family issues. We, as you know, are the final word on the interpretation of Louisiana Law. I felt like it was important to have that varied background.

Locke Meredith: Let’s explain to the folks again; because I am not sure that very many of them understand. The Trial Court is basically where all of the evidence comes in. The witnesses testify, paper documents are brought in, whatever evidence the Judge and Jury are going to hear. That is where the Court System receives it.

Kitty Kimball: That’s correct.

Locke Meredith: And then at the Appellate Court level there is no more introduction of evidence that was done at the Trial Court level. The Appellate Court which includes The Intermediate Appellate Court, basically looks at the evidence introduced at the Trial Court level. Ok, so explain to the folks based on your experience as a Trial Court Judge what you learned from that. What it is like compared to the Appellate Courts.

Kitty Kimball: Well, I think it is really important, there are certainly good Justices on The Supreme Court and good Judges on The Appellate Court that have never been a Trial Judge. However, I think it gives you a  much better perspective when you actually understand what it is like to try a case. You understand that maybe that Trial Judge who makes a particular ruling is seeing something on a live witness that we aren’t seeing on a piece of paper.

Locke Meredith: Interesting. So based on your experience I guess it makes you more inclined to defer to the discretion of the Trial Court.

Kitty Kimball: Right. I think it definitely does and we are supposed to do that. We instruct The Appellate Courts that they should defer in many instances to the Trial Court. Not on the law of course, but you know that Trial Court is looking that witness in the face. That Trial Court is seeing whether that witness is nervous.

Locke Meredith: Or breathing heavy or something?

Kitty Kimball: Right and we cannot see that on a piece of paper. It is important that you have a sense of understanding that the Trial Judge is seeing a lot more than what we are seeing on a piece of paper.

Locke Meredith: So explain to the folks the power of the Trial Court Judge. As you communicated, they have great discretion and there job is to what?

Kitty Kimball: They do. Their job is to do justice between the parties that are before them to the best of their ability and to apply the law as we have given them and the Legislature has given them. When the move to The Appellate Court, The Appellate Court is really looking at whether or not there has been an error. The Trial Judge is also making snap decisions all through a trial. They don’t have the luxury we have to go sit down and research a small piece of law. If they are in the middle of a trial they have to make a decision. The Appellate Court will be looking at whether or not they see any errors. When they move to our level, we really are not, which is something most people don’t understand, we are really not to function as a second reviewer as to whether or not there was an error. We really are to function as a Court that determines the issues that are of extreme importance to the whole State and to try and choose those issues to give the final interpretation of the law for the lower Courts to follow.

Locke Meredith: Let’s continue discussing The Appellate Court role on the next segment. This is Locke Meredith with Supreme Court Justice Kitty Kimball. We’ll be right back.

 

Locke Meredith: Welcome back to Legal Lines. Again, I’m very pleased to have on the show Justice Kitty Kimball. She is a Justice on The Louisiana Supreme Court. Justice Kimball again, Thank you. We were talking about the roles of The Trial Court versus The Appellate Court. We were discussing the vast majority of cases are resolved at the Trial Court.

Kitty Kimball: That’s right the judgment at The Trial Court is final.

Locke Meredith: And so most folks who deal with the Court system will be at the Trial level.

Kitty Kimball: That’s right.

Locke Meredith: Explain to the folks what happens when a case is appealed.

Kitty Kimball: Well when a case is appealed then as you suggested earlier, all of the information that is collected in The Trial Court, all of the evidence, the transcript of all of the testimony, that entire record is put together and is sent to The Appellate Court. There are no more witnesses, evidence, no more anything. The Appellate Court will then look at that record and hear evidence sometimes from the Lawyers, that is something that they choose to do or not. Different Appellate Courts handle it differently and they will make a decision about that case based on the law and based on only the record before them not any new testimony or evidence.

Locke Meredith: So bottom line is that no witnesses are trucking up to The Court of Appeals, or the Louisiana Supreme Court. Its done at the Trial Court level only.

Kitty Kimball: Yes. The Trial Court is the only one Court that sees evidence and views the witnesses.

Locke Meredith: And we have five Appellate Courts. Explain to the folks how many Appellate Court Justices there are and what their jurisdiction and role is in terms of the Trial Court.

Kitty Kimball: I should have the numbers off of the top of my head but I don’t. In Baton Rouge which is the district that handles this jurisdiction, there are twelve Judges on that Court. Their jurisdiction is I think sixteen parishes, including Baton Rouge, and including as you say all of the cases where suits are filed against the government agencies because all of that is handled in the Baton Rouge Courts. They have a tremendous case load in Baton Rouge. They have by far the largest case load in this District.

Locke Meredith: Sure. They do a good job with the tasks that they have.

Kitty Kimball: They do. They have a tremendous amount of work to do among those Judges. And the Judges are from different parts of that District. They are not all from Baton Rouge. They are from Baton Rouge, Thibodeaux, Covington, Livingston, different parishes around this area.

Locke Meredith: And then they basically have the Lawyers get up, argue the points, they ask them questions and then one of them writes a decision. The whole panel is not sitting for every oral argument is it?

Kitty Kimball: No. They sit in panels of three. So if there is a case in the First Circuit there will be three Judges traditionally that will hear that case. Now if they decide that they want to reverse a Trial Court then The Constitution provides that case be resubmitted to five Judges. They will have a five Judge panel that looks at the case anew.

Locke Meredith: And does it have to be a majority of them or a unanimous decision?

Kitty Kimball: No, it just has to be a majority vote and the case then by majority is either affirmed, which means the Trial Judges judgment is upheld or it is reversed.

Locke Meredith: And the scope of review is de novo, meaning that the Trial Court, I guess they ignore the Trial Court in essence?

Kitty Kimball: Well they ignore the Trial Court on legal question. As we talked earlier, The Trial Court doesn’t see the law any differently than The Appellate Court. The law is the law and its written down and it is interpretated. They do not ignore them on things such as damages, settling of damages and viewing of witnesses and credibility decisions and those kinds of things where the Trial Judge is in a better position seeing people live and knowing what is going on in the court room.

Locke Meredith: So kind of the investigative factual inquiry and creditability.

Kitty Kimball: Right.

Locke Meredith: They are going to defer to the Trial Court, but when its applying to law they are going to look at that as a first instance. The reason is because The Trial Court if it falls within that District, The Appellate Court is supposed to be following that Appellate Courts decision on the law. And that Appellate Court is supposed to be following the law on The Louisiana Supreme Courts decisions, which is where you sit.

Kitty Kimball: That is correct.

Locke Meredith: Explain to the folks basically what The Louisiana Supreme Court does. There is one Louisiana Supreme Court, Five Appellate Courts, and Forty-Two District Courts, which have multiple Courts. So explain the uniqueness of the Louisiana Supreme Court compared to the other Appellate Courts.

Kitty Kimball: As I mentioned earlier, The Louisiana Supreme Court is the final word on the interpretation of the Louisiana Law. There are seven Justices and unlike the Court of Appeal, every Justice sits on every case. We do not have any panels. Our jurisdiction for the most part depends upon whether or not we think a case is important enough for us to consider it in The Supreme Court. You mentioned the lower courts following the Circuit Court. Sometimes a Circuit Court in Baton Rouge may interpret the law differently than a Circuit Court in Lake Charles and when that occurs it is up to us at The Supreme Court level to say no there can only be one interpretation. We will look at what the first circuit thinks that the statute means, we will look at what the third circuit thinks the statute means and then we will tell you what the appropriate interpretation is. At which time both the first and the third will be required to follow what we say the law is interpreted to be.

Locke Meredith: A lot of criticism is pointed or directed at the Court. A lot of politicians you will hear say that the Courts are legislated from the Bench. Explain to the folks what that means.

Kitty Kimball: Well, what the Court is supposed to do and what we try very, very hard to do, and I think we do a very good job of it, is that they are to interpret the law that the legislature has given us. The Legislature is the body that makes policies for The State of Louisiana. As it should be…the Legislature is the closest to the people. Their job is to do what the people want them to do and pass laws that their constituents want to be laws.

Locke Meredith: Because it’s a government of the people.

Kitty Kimball: That’s right. That’s their job. Our job is only to be sure that there is only one interpretation of that law and to be sure that the Legislature in exercising their function does not step on The Constitution, which is the direct law voted on by the people.

Locke Meredith: So the Constitution is the guiding document. The precepts and directions of it guide everything else that takes place.

Kitty Kimball: Yes

Locke Meredith: In fact it divides the power the people having given government between the Executive Brach, which in this case is Governor Jindal; The Judiciary, which is the District, Appellate & Supreme Courts; and The Legislature, which is divided up between the Representatives and The Senators.

Kitty Kimball: Correct. You know sometimes the people say the Court legislates. I think they don’t really understand by that the Court does sometimes have to not create, but try to figure out what the Legislature has done and to fill a gap. I use the example sometimes in trying to talk to the public about that; about different Governors. I don’t mean that one Governor is good, bad or indifferent, but when you changed from Edwin Edwards to Mike Foster, you had very different Legislative programs and Executive programs. Edwin Edwards felt a certain way about things, Mike Foster felt a different way about things. Sometimes the Legislature, in following a governor’s lead, which they did with Mike Foster, with all of the tort reform issues that happened, would leave in place a statute that had been adopted with a different theory and a different governor and a different Legislature. And so then you have these two things that look like they contradict each other because as I say, one is Foster legislation and one is Edwards’s legislation and the two of them really didn’t have the same philosophy at all in terms of what they wanted to put forward as legislative agenda. We have to try and make sense out of it. We have to try to make them work together if that’s possible.

Locke Meredith: Well it has to be practical.

Kitty Kimball: And it has to work. We have to try and see what the Legislature was trying to say when they did that. Did they really mean for these to be together? Did they really mean this one shouldn’t be there at all but they forgot to repeal it? Sometimes when we do those things that we try to make sense of things that don’t fit together, people think that we are creating new law. We don’t see it that way at all. We are just trying to figure out what they really meant to do.

Locke Meredith: Well, lets talk about again, the role of The Louisiana Supreme Court on the next segment. This is Locke Meredith with Legal Lines and Justice Kitty Kimball with The Louisiana Supreme Court. We’ll be right back.

 

Locke Meredith:  Welcome back to Legal Lines, I’m Locke Meredith and again I am very pleased to have on the show Justice Kitty Kimball. She is a Judge for The Louisiana Supreme Court. Again, Judge thank you for being here.

We were talking about the role of The Louisiana Supreme Court. First of all, you were the first female Judge in the history of The Louisiana Supreme Court.

Kitty Kimball: Yes.

Locke Meredith: Tell the folks what that’s like.

Kitty Kimball: Well it was real interesting at first. Of course having never had a female there I think the men weren’t real sure what to do with it me.

Locke Meredith: That’s so funny.

Kitty Kimball: I grew up with four brothers so it…

Locke Meredith: Used to men huh?

Kitty Kimball: When I went to law school there were maybe five or six women and the rest were men. I think it was much harder for them to get used to a female than it was for me to get used to working with the men because basically my career had been that way but it didn’t take long.

Locke Meredith: You were a Trial Court Judge for ten years and then you have been in with The Louisiana Supreme Court for sixteen years?

Kitty Kimball: Sixteen years.

Locke Meredith: Each term of The Louisiana Supreme Court is ten years?

Kitty Kimball: Correct.

Locke Meredith: Explain to the folks, there is an age limitation?

Kitty Kimball: There is. The Constitution provides for all Judges that they must retire at age seventy or at the end of the term where they become seventy. In other words if I ran at sixty-eight, I could stay until I was seventy-eight but normally it would be seventy.

Locke Meredith: Bottom line is this is your last term.

Kitty Kimball: This is my last term, yes. This is my last and final song.

Locke Meredith: Explain to the folks, because you have a lot of responsibility, The Chief Judge has delegated to you, frankly a lot of the administrative duties and responsibilities at the Court. Also when you are re-elected, you will be elevated to the Chief Justice status. Is that correct?

Kitty Kimball: Correct.

Locke Meredith: Explain to the folks how that works.

Kitty Kimball: Yes. The Constitution provides that the person who has been on the Court the longest is the Chief Justice. When this current Chief Justice leaves.

Locke Meredith: Which is in January?

Kitty Kimball: Which is January 31st, I will be the next in line because I have been there sixteen years and the other Justices have not been there as long.

Locke Meredith: And the bottom line is as I understand it, The Chief Justice is in charge of the administration of The Louisiana Supreme Court and all of the Courts in the State of Louisiana.

Kitty Kimball: Yes.

Locke Meredith: That sounds overwhelming.

Kitty Kimball: It is overwhelming. The current Chief and I have been sharing a lot of the administrative responsibilities for quite a while so some of my other Justices will help me out. All of them will help me out. The administrative duties of the court are tremendous. People don’t recognize, I don’t think, that we do that many administrative functions. We have jurisdiction over discipline of all Judges, of all Lawyers, we write all sorts of different kinds of rules. We recently tightened up our rules on Lawyer advertising. We recently stepped up the financial reporting of all Judges. We deal with Bar Admissions, we deal with the law schools, we deal with the bar exam, we deal with all of the drug courts, we have the funding for the Drug Courts all over the State of Louisiana. We have the funding for the CASA Programs.

Locke Meredith: Which stands for what?

Kitty Kimball: Court Appointed Special Advocate. We don’t have all of their funding but we have significant funding. We distribute to the different courts throughout the State to assist them in having those programs. Which basically provide a lawyer for a child who has been abused or neglected.

Locke Meredith: Which I noticed as I recall, you were actually recognized for your role in that advocacy position.

Kitty Kimball: Yes. It’s so very important and there is probably no body in the world more vulnerable than a child who has been abused or neglected. It’s really important that we provide lawyers for them so the lawyers can help the Judge make the best decision for that child.

Locke Meredith: And as I understand it you are actually now in charge of as Chief Justice, the budget.

Kitty Kimball: Yes. I have been handling the budget for about fifteen years.

Locke Meredith: And what is the budget this year?

Kitty Kimball: It’s about one hundred and sixty three million dollars.

Locke Meredith: That’s a big number.

Kitty Kimball: It is a big number but it has all of the expenses of The Supreme Court, all of the expenses of The Appellate Court, and then we have all of the salaries of The District Courts. Most of the District Courts, well all of them are funded locally. The operations of their courts that is. We handle all of the salaries of all of those courts. Then some of those other things that I mentioned, the Drug Courts, the CASA program, we have a Families in Need of Services Program.

Locke Meredith: It sounds like a lot.

Kitty Kimball: Oh yeah, it’s a whole lot more than just making decisions. I don’t know that the public really realizes it because we kind of operate under the radar.

Locke Meredith: Justice, explain to the folks what happens when a case does reach The Louisiana Supreme Court and how ya’ll accept cases and then how it is processed.

Kitty Kimball: We have ten criteria that are listed in The Supreme Court rules for things that we will be looking at in order to except a case. One of them I mentioned earlier and at least in my opinion is the most important, is where you have two Appellate Courts that interpret the law differently. The law should be the same in Lake Charles as it is in Baton Rouge. Everyone must ask us to take there case, with few limited exceptions such as; if a death penalty case is imposed we are required by The Constitution to review that case.

Locke Meredith: It goes straight to you.

Kitty Kimball: It goes straight to us. Lawyer discipline cases go to no other Court, they come straight to us.

Locke Meredith: It’s a serious issue.

Kitty Kimball: Yes. Judge cases come straight from the Judiciary Commission which is a separate Constitutional Investigatory body than Judges that come straight to us. Everybody else has to ask us to take their case and they have to tell us why their case is important to The State of Louisiana. We review about one hundred of those cases per week. We except about seven percent traditionally. Once we accept a case, we then schedule it for argument. We hear from the Lawyers.  We quiz them probably more than most Lawyers would like to be quizzed.

Locke Meredith: They better be ready huh?

Kitty Kimball: Oh yes, they better be ready. What a lot of Lawyers and a lot of Litigants don’t really understand is when we are asking questions about the case, its not so much that particular case between those particular people, but it’s the principle and the legal ideas that underlie that case that make that case important.

Locke Meredith: Because the decisions ya’ll make affect millions of people.

Kitty Kimball: That’s right. Our decision in their case, lets say its an automobile accident, not only affects those two people but it affects every other accident case in the whole State of Louisiana.

Locke Meredith: That’s right.

Kitty Kimball: When we accept a case it is very important.

Locke Meredith: Make sure you have all of the information correct.

Kitty Kimball: Right.

Locke Meredith: Justice Kimball, thank you so very much for being on the show.

Kitty Kimball: I thoroughly enjoyed it. I always like talking about what I do.

Locke Meredith: This is Locke Meredith with Legal Lines and Justice Kitty Kimball of The Louisiana Supreme Court. Thank you for being with us.

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