Analysis: Big issues to play out in court in 2015
By KEVIN McGILL
NEW ORLEANS – Yes, the new year brings a new campaign for governor, other statewide elective offices and legislative seats, but political campaigns won’t be the only forum for major issues to be argued as the new year unfolds.
Federal and state judges will hear arguments and make decisions on an array of social and political matters. Among them:
r The “Big Oil” lawsuit.
The oil industry and Gov. Bobby Jindal are vehemently opposed to the lawsuit that a New Orleans area flood protection board filed in 2013 against dozens of oil, gas and pipeline companies over damage to the state’s fragile coast – so vehemently that it looked like the suit couldn’t possibly survive onslaughts in court and at the Legislature.
But getting a bill to kill the lawsuit through the Legislature proved more difficult than it looked like it would be. And the bill that did come out (at least according to the flood board’s lawyers and, so far, one state judge) missed its mark. Aside from being drafted in such a way that it doesn’t apply to suits filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, it’s also unconstitutional on several grounds. Or so argues the SLPFA-E legal team.
2015 brings new opportunities for the suit to die, however. The state Supreme Court or a federal judge may decide that the state law does indeed kill the lawsuit. Or the federal judge who has been looking over evidence and hearing arguments in the case could decide the oil companies are right and it needs to be dismissed. Or Jindal may be able to replace more SLPFA-E board members with lawsuit opponents – although the nominating panel that chooses candidates for the board has shown less willingness lately to nominate lawsuit opponents.
Meanwhile, similar lawsuits filed by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes live on.
r The BP oil spill.
The fifth anniversary of the disaster that killed 11 offshore rig workers and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico arrives in April. Ahead of that, a federal judge hears arguments on how much BP should pay in Clean Water Act fines.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier already has found that the oil giant acted with “gross negligence” in the tragedy, a ruling that could mean some $18 billion in penalties. Other factors include disputed estimates of how much oil spewed into the Gulf before the Macondo well was capped.
There are criminal cases arising from the spill to keep an eye on as well.
r New Orleans police.
2015 also marks another tragic anniversary – 10 years since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and southeastern Louisiana.
New Orleans has bounced back remarkably in many ways from the levee failures that inundated the city. But 2015 will likely bring reminders of the resulting chaos – among them the continued court fights over the fate of former police officers convicted in the deadly shootings of unarmed civilians at the Danziger Bridge. Four officers were convicted in federal court in the shootings and a fifth was convicted in the cover-up. But those convictions were overturned later by the judge who cited then-anonymous online postings by prosecutors as examples of prosecutorial misconduct.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has federal prosecutors’ appeals to have the convictions re-instated. The ex-officers, meanwhile, remain imprisoned pending a new trial.
r Ray Nagin.
Another figure in the Katrina drama, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is in prison for corruption, but his appeal remains before the 5th Circuit.
r Gay marriage.
The 5th Circuit also figures in one of the first big court cases of the New Year. On Jan. 9, a three judge panel hears arguments over the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.