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Louisiana’s conservative state officials seek to block ‘rogue’ district attorneys


Louisiana’s conservative state officials seek to block ‘rogue’ district attorneys

Apr 17, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Julie O'Donoghue
Louisiana’s conservative state officials seek to block ‘rogue’ district attorneys
Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams is the likely target of conservative state proposals to limit Louisiana district attorney authority. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

Conservative officials in Louisiana are pushing multiple measures to limit the authority of district attorneys, following the lead of GOP leaders in other states with liberal cities at odds with their politics. 

Republican Gov. Jeff Landry is advocating for a constitutional convention where, according to his own advisory committee, district attorneys’ broad authority over criminal prosecutions and grand juries in their judicial districts would be up for debate.

At the same time, state lawmakers are weighing a separate constitutional amendment to allow the Louisiana Legislature and a not-yet-created state commission to overrule district attorneys when they refuse to prosecute and give control over cases to the state attorney general. 

The proposals reflect those seen in other Southern states where Republican state officials have sought to undercut or remove so-called “progressive” district attorneys in overwhelmingly Democratic areas. 

Those district attorneys, often representing larger cities, have taken policy positions law-and-order Republicans find offensive. They decline to prosecute certain types of drug offenses, for example, or have vowed to abstain from abortion-related criminal cases in states where the procedure is illegal.

The same political dynamic appears to be driving the conversation around prosecutorial power in Louisiana.

Sen. Jay Morris, R-West Monroe, said he was inspired to file Senate Bill 122, the constitutional amendment to weaken district attorney authority, because of what he called the “New Orleans situation.” The city elected Democrat Jason Williams in 2021 to serve as district attorney based on a progressive criminal justice platform.

During a state Senate hearing on his proposal Tuesday, Morris said he worried about New Orleans “letting people out of prison” and a surge in the city’s crime rate two years ago, shortly after Williams started his six-year term. 

In 2022, the New Orleans jail had to release hundreds of people after the district attorney office’s deadlines to charge them with crimes expired. Williams said the releases weren’t deliberate on his part. They resulted from a widespread breakdown in the criminal justice system during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the three years since he was elected, Williams has also moved away from the progressive platform on which he campaigned — a shift that even Morris acknowledged has taken place. 

Notably, Williams backtracked on an election commitment not to charge minors with adult crimes, much to the chagrin of his campaign supporters. He also agreed to let Republican Attorney General Liz Murrill take over some criminal cases in New Orleans

Even if Williams altered his approach, Morris warned fellow senators Tuesday another “rogue” district attorney might be more obstinate, and there is little state Republicans could do to put pressure on them without changes to the state constitution. 

District attorneys enjoy wide discretion over which cases they can pursue, thanks to protections embedded in the constitution. The attorney general is only allowed to take over cases with the district attorney’s explicit permission or when a judge removes a district attorney’s office from a case for unacceptable behavior, which rarely happens

This gives Louisiana’s district attorneys a shield their counterparts in other states don’t have. In Florida, for example, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis believes the powers of his office came with the authority to suspend and replace two Democratic district attorneys unilaterally.

GOP officials in other states also passed new laws just to make it easier to remove district attorneys. GOP Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in 2023 signed off on a new commission that could more easily reprimand prosecutors, which may disrupt Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ case against former President Donald Trump

Texas also passed a law in 2023 to make it easier for judges to unseat prosecutors who don’t pursue certain criminal cases. It was a reaction, in part, to liberal district attorneys who announced they wouldn’t enforce Texas’ strict abortion ban. 

Abortion concerns could also be a factor for scrutinizing district attorneys in Louisiana. In 2022, Williams said he was unwilling to “shift priorities” to pursue abortion-related crimes shortly after the state abortion ban went into effect.

There’s also an indication Landry may be targeting more Democratic district attorneys than just Williams.

During his gubernatorial campaign, Landry ran television advertisements in Baton Rouge, Shreveport and New Orleans in which he described those local criminal justice systems as “broken,” in part, because “DAs fail to prosecute.”

The district attorneys in all three communities are Democrats, and Landry vowed in the ad to hold them accountable for their decisions.

The New Orleans and Shreveport versions of Landry’s campaign spot featured photos of Williams and Caddo Parish District Attorney James Stewart, who are both Black, though the Baton Rouge advertisement didn’t include an image of District Attorney Hillar Moore, who is white. 

Democratic district attorneys also aren’t the only ones worried about proposals to undercut prosecutorial authority.

The Louisiana District Attorneys Association, made up mostly of elected Republicans, came out strongly against Morris’ constitutional amendment. Over a dozen GOP district attorneys showed up in person to object to the legislation when it was debated Tuesday in a Senate committee. 

“I think we value our autonomy,” said Scott Perrilloux, the GOP prosecutor for Livingston, St. Helena and Tangipahoa parishes. “I’ve recused myself in many cases. … We’re not above the law.” 

Morris’ amendment is expected to come up for a committee vote next week, but has a few more hurdles to clear before it can become law. The Louisiana House and Senate each would have to pass the amendment with a two-thirds vote, and then voters would have to approve it on the November ballot. 

Whether the larger constitutional convention Landry is pushing will happen also remains to be seen. But even if it succeeds, changes to district attorney power would take at least another year to adopt. The governor needs two-thirds of the Senate and House to agree to hold the convention first. 

If it is held, state lawmakers and Landry’s gubernatorial delegates would then have to agree to move district attorney authority out of the state constitution, alongside potentially dozens of other changes. Voters would also have to approve the new version of the constitution in November.

Then, Landry and state lawmakers could easily water down district attorneys’ powers in 2025 because the provisions would no longer enjoy the constitutional protections they have now.