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Montgomery v. ST. Tammany Parish Government

Supreme Court of Louisiana

June 27, 2018

WARREN MONTGOMERY, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS DISTRICT ATTORNEY FOR ST. TAMMANY PARISH
v.
ST. TAMMANY PARISH GOVERNMENT, BY AND THROUGH THE ST. TAMMANY PARISH COUNCIL; AND PATRICIA "PAT" BRISTER, IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS PARISH PRESIDENT

          ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL, FIRST CIRCUIT, PARISH OF ST. TAMMANY

          CLARK, JUSTICE [*]

         We granted writ of certiorari in this case to determine whether the lower courts erred in finding that the St. Tammany Parish District Attorney is not legally obligated and entitled to serve as "legal adviser to the [Parish C]ouncil, [Parish P]resident and all departments, offices and agencies, and represent the Parish government in legal proceedings."[1] For the reasons that follow, we find that the lower courts did, in fact, err, and we reverse the trial court's grant of Respondent's Motion for Summary Judgment. Furthermore, finding that there is no genuine issue of material fact that the Louisiana Constitution, the laws of the State, and the St. Tammany Parish Charter mandate that Applicant is the general attorney for St. Tammany Parish, we grant Applicant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On April 11, 2016, Applicant, Warren Montgomery, in his official capacity as District Attorney for St. Tammany Parish, filed suit against the St. Tammany Parish Government by and through the St. Tammany Parish Council, and Patricia "Pat" Brister in her official capacity as Parish President (collectively "Respondents"). Applicant sought declaratory relief to determine whether the District Attorney is legally obligated and entitled to serve as the legal advisor to, and litigation counsel for, Respondents and whether Respondents' operation of an independent legal department of St. Tammany Parish is contrary to law. Applicant also sought preliminary and permanent injunctive relief consistent with the requested declaratory relief.

         Respondents filed dilatory exceptions of prematurity and unauthorized use of summary proceeding, as well as peremptory exceptions of no cause of action and no right of action. Respondents also answered the petition by denying Applicant's claims and asserting several affirmative defenses. In the same pleading, Respondents filed a reconventional demand for declaratory relief that La. R.S. 42:261-263, La. R.S. 16:2 and Section 4-03 (A) of the St. Tammany Parish Home Rule Charter were unconstitutional.

         The parties briefed the issues, and after a hearing, the trial court denied Respondents' exceptions of no cause of action and no right of action, but reserved Respondents' right to re-urge those exceptions later. The court granted the Respondents' exceptions of prematurity and improper use of summary proceeding. The court also granted the exception of prematurity as to the claim for mandatory injunctive relief and dismissed that claim without prejudice. The parties then conducted limited written discovery.

         Thereafter, in August and September 2016, the St. Tammany Parish Council adopted two ordinances (the "Challenged Ordinances") that changed the nature of the legal representation of the Parish. As a result, Respondents filed an amended answer and supplemental peremptory exception of no cause of action, contending that the new Challenged Ordinances mooted Applicant's claims.

         Although the matter was scheduled for trial, the parties suggested, and the trial court allowed, the filing of cross motions for summary judgment. On September 12, 2016, the trial court heard Respondents' supplemental peremptory exception of no cause of action and the cross motions for summary judgment. The trial court took the matter under advisement, and then rendered a Judgment and issued Reasons for Judgment on September 18, 2016, denying Respondents' Supplemental Exception of No Cause of Action, denying Applicant's Motion for Summary Judgment, and granting Respondents' cross Joint Motion for Summary Judgment.

         In those Reasons for Judgment, the trial court stated, in pertinent part:

[T]he above ordinances [Ordinance Calendar Nos. 5638 and 5644] are determinative of this matter. The Defendants wish to continue autonomously structuring, organizing and managing the legal staff as it has for the past ten years. Parish officials do not wish to relinquish their right to choose who represents or advises them in legal matters, and rely solely and exclusively on the District Attorney's office. The ordinances make that clear. The substance and passage of the ordinances are within authority granted to Defendants under the Charter and applicable law and are binding.

On a more practical note, there is obvious concern about the ability of the District Attorney's office and parish government officials to work together as a cohesive force for the betterment of the people of St. Tammany Parish after this lawsuit if the Parish were forced to accept the District Attorney as sole legal representative. With the filing of this action, the District Attorney has taken on an adversarial position to the Parish Council and the Parish President that presents a conflict of interest, not only in this current action but quite possibly in future actions. Disharmony and distrust would likely be the natural consequence of these proceedings putting a burden on both parties that would only make governing the Parish more difficult, and would not serve the citizens of St. Tammany Parish well.

Mr. Montgomery as the Plaintiff would bear the burden of proof at a trial on the merits. To prevail, he must show that the St. Tammany Parish government is operating a legal department that is in contravention of law and the Charter, and further that it [sic] the parish government is preventing him from performing his duties and exercising his power as the duly elected District Attorney. Given the ability of a local government to opt out of the statutory scheme set forth in La. R.S. 42:261 as provided for in [La.] R.S. 16:2, the rights and powers set forth in the Home Rule Charter, and the two pertinent ordinances passed within the power and authority of the Council, the Court finds that Mr. Montgomery will be unable to meet that burden.[2]

         The trial court also found that "it is unnecessary to examine the constitutional claims for the disposition of this matter."[3]

         On November 15, 2016, Applicant appealed this decision to the Court of Appeal, First Circuit. After briefing and oral argument, on September 26, 2017, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's judgment, albeit with somewhat different reasoning. Montgomery v. St. Tammany Par. Gov't by & through St. Tammany Par. Council, 2017-0136 (La.App. 1 Cir. 9/26/17), 232 So.3d 652. The Court of Appeal found, in pertinent part, that:

In this case, as in Devall [v. Depaula, 96-1067 (La.App. 1 Cir. 5/9/97), 694 So.2d 1137], the Parish President and Council have reorganized the local government pursuant to the Home Rule Charter. The St. Tammany Parish Home Rule Charter, Section 4-12, gives the Council and the President the power to create, change, alter, consolidate, or abolish Parish departments, including to reallocate functions, powers, duties, and responsibilities of positions in such departments. St. Tammany Parish Home Rule Charter Section 4-03, providing that the district attorney shall serve as legal advisor to the council, president and all departments, offices and agencies and represent the Parish government in legal proceedings, must be read and construed within the context of the entirety of the Home Rule Charter and the powers granted to the STPG, including Section 4-12, which provides for reorganization of the parish government.
Further, while Section 4-03(A) of the St. Tammany Parish Home Rule Charter states that the District Attorney "shall" serve as legal advisor, and "shall" is mandatory pursuant La. R.S. 1:3, the St. Tammany Parish Home Rule Charter does not state that the District Attorney is the "sole" or "exclusive" general legal advisor to the S[t.] T[ammany] P[arish] G[overnment]. Likewise, the St. Tammany Parish Home Rule Charter does not have any express limitation on the Council's or Parish President's right to employ their own counsel to provide general legal advice and services. The limitation is upon the hiring of counsel that is special or "outside" counsel, which can only be hired through a written contract approved by a majority of the council.
While Mr. Montgomery asserts that the ruling of the district court allows the S[t.] T[ammany] P[arish] G[overnment] to decide when and under what circumstances it can compel the District Attorney to represent it, we find that the fact that the S[t.] T[ammany] P[arish] G[overnment] maintains a separate Legal Department to advise it on civil legal matters does not mean that the District Attorney has been compelled to do anything.
We find no genuine issue of material fact that Mr. Montgomery will be unable to meet his burden to show that the defendants are operatina civil legal department that is in violation of the law, or to show that the defendants are preventing him from performing his duties as district attorney.

Montgomery v. St. Tammany Par. Gov't by & through St. Tammany Par. Council, 2017-0136, 13-14 (La.App. 1 Cir. 9/26/17), 232 So.3d 652, 660-61.

         Thereafter, Applicant timely filed his writ application to this Court. On January 29, 2018, this Court granted the writ and docketed the matter for the Court's consideration. Montgomery, 2017-1811 (La. 1/29/18), 233 So.3d at 609.

         LAW AND ANALYSIS

         This case involves interpreting the Constitution, statutes, and a home rule charter. As we have stated many times before:

The fundamental question in all cases of statutory interpretation is legislative intent and the ascertainment of the reason or reasons that prompted the Legislature to enact the law. The rules of statutory construction are designed to ascertain and enforce the intent of the Legislature. Legislation is the solemn expression of legislative will, and therefore, interpretation of a law involves primarily a search for the Legislature's intent.
When a law is clear and unambiguous and its application does not lead to absurd consequences, the law shall be applied as written and no further interpretation may be made in search of the intent of the Legislature. When the language of the law is susceptible of different meanings, it must be interpreted as having the meaning that best conforms to the purpose of the law, and the words of law must be given their generally prevailing meaning. When the words of a law are ambiguous, their meaning must be sought by examining the context in which they occur and the text of the law as a whole, and laws on the same subject matter must be interpreted in reference to each other.
The meaning and intent of a law is determined by considering the law in its entirety and all other laws on the same subject matter and placing a construction on the provision in question that is consistent with the express terms of the law and with the obvious intent of the Legislature in enacting it. The statute must, therefore, be applied and interpreted in a manner, which is consistent with logic and the presumed fair purpose and intention of the Legislature in passing it.
This is because the rules of statutory construction require that the general intent and purpose of the Legislature in enacting the law must, if possible, be given effect Courts should give effect to all parts of a statute and should not give a statute an interpretation that makes any part superfluous or meaningless, if that result can be avoided. It is likewise presumed that the intention of the legislative branch is to achieve a consistent body of law. [Internal citations omitted].

Pumphrey v. City of New Orleans, 2005-0979 (La. 4/4/06, 10-11), 925 So.2d 1202, 1209-10. By analogy, similar rules apply to interpreting the Constitution and home rule charter. E. Baton Rouge Par. Sch. Bd. v. Foster, 2002-2799 (La. 6/6/03, 16), 851 So.2d 985, 996.

         The Louisiana Constitution is the supreme law of the State of Louisiana, to which all legislative acts must yield. M.J. Farms, Ltd. v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 2007-2371 (La. 7/1/08, 22), 998 So.2d 16, 31-32, amended on reh'g Sept. 19, 2008). As pertains to this matter, the Constitution states:

Except as otherwise provided by this constitution, a district attorney, or his designated assistant, shall have charge of every criminal prosecution by the state in his district, be the representative of the state before the grand jury in his district, and be the legal advisor ...

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