Sam Hanna Jr.

Last week’s Louisiana Supreme Court ruling curtailing immunity for judges sent shock waves through legal circles, particularly the judiciary. And rightfully so.

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court overturned a First Circuit Court of Appeal ruling affirming that judges enjoyed absolute immunity from civil claims, or civil lawsuits. On a parallel front, the Supreme Court ruled 5-2 in upholding a First Circuit ruling that found a law clerk at Fourth Judicial District Court in Monroe was not cloaked in absolute immunity from a civil lawsuit filed by a Monroe businessman.

The case that served up this hot potato is Stanley R. Palowsky III v. Allyson Campbell and others. Campbell is the law clerk in question at Fourth Judicial District Court. The “other” defendants would be Fourth Judicial District Court judges Fred Amman, Wilson Rambo, Stephens Winters and retired judges Carl Sharp and Ben Jones, who now serves as court administrator.

In a lawsuit filed in 2015, Palowksy alleged Campbell removed or destroyed filings he had logged with the district court in a 2013 lawsuit he brought against a former business partner. Shortly after suing Campbell, Palowsky amended his lawsuit to name the judges as defendants as well. He accused them of conspiring to cover up Campbell’s alleged misdeeds.

Later in 2015, Judge Jerome “Jerry” Barbera of Lafourche Parish, who was appointed by the Supreme Court to preside over the Palowsky case, dismissed Palowsky’s lawsuit, ruling the clerk and judges enjoyed absolute immunity in civil lawsuits brought against them over their actions at the courthouse. Palowsky appealed, of course, and eventually landed at the First Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge. Though the Second Circuit Court of Appeal in Shreveport usually entertains appeals from the Fourth Judicial District Court, the Second Circuit recused.

Not once but twice the First Circuit heard oral arguments in Palowsky v. Campbell and others, and in 2018 the First Circuit overturned Barbera’s ruling extending judicial immunity to Campbell. However, the First Circuit upheld Barbera’s ruling that judges enjoyed absolute immunity from civil claims.

Campbell appealed the First Circuit’s ruling to the Supreme Court concerning her immunity claim while Palowsky filed his own appeal with Supreme Court, challenging the First Circuit’s finding that Barbera was correct in ruling judges had absolute immunity from the Palowsky lawsuit.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Palowsky v. Campbell and others, setting the stage for last week’s ruling.

In finding the judges did not enjoy absolute immunity in light of the allegations Palowsky levied, the Supreme Court ruled the judges had acted in their administrative capacities regarding the clerk, not in a judicial context as the judges asserted in defense of Palowsky’s lawsuit. The justices cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Forrester v. White, a case in which the nation’s highest court ruled a judge did not enjoy absolute immunity when making administrative decisions such as supervising court employees.

The four justices at the state Supreme Court who ruled the judges did not enjoy absolute immunity in the Palowsky matter were James Genovese, Jefferson Hughes and John Weimer and Judge Michael Kirby, who served on the panel in an ad hoc capacity because Justice Marcus Clark of West Monroe recused. Clark formerly served as a judge at Fourth Judicial District Court; Campbell once clerked for him.

Chief Justice Bernette Johnson dissented along with justices Scott Crichton and Greg Guidry. Guidry has since resigned from the Supreme Court after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate to a U.S. District Court seat in the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Meanwhile, Crichton and Guidry were the only two justices who dissented in the Supreme Court upholding the First Circuit’s ruling that Campbell did not enjoy absolute immunity. But even in his dissent, Crichton did not pull any punches in expressing his concerns with the Fourth Judicial District Court, particularly Campbell.

“… judicial immunity is absolutely not a ‘get out of jail free’ card for any of the parties herein, nor should this dissent be construed to condone the disturbing allegations against the rogue law clerk and the judges,” Crichton wrote.

The bottom line is the Supreme Court clipped the wings of the judges at Fourth Judicial District Court and dispelled the silly notion that a law clerk enjoys judicial immunity.

What does all of this mean? It means Palowsky now has the green light to subpoena Campbell and the judges and whoever else to sit for depositions — under oath — in his civil lawsuit against the clerk and judges.

Only the Lord knows what’s going to come bubbling to the surface next.

Sam Hanna Jr. can be reached

by phone at 318-805-8158

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