A Senate concurrent resolution introduced by Sen. Dan Morrish could start the process of breaking up the 15th Judicial District. The Jennings senator's SCR116 is up for final passage in the House on Tuesday.
Morrish's sprawling District 25 includes all of Jeff Davis and Cameron parishes, a small part of Calcasieu Parish and most of Acadia Parish. He's now serving his third term representing the district and the matter of Acadia Parish being tied to Lafayette and Vermilion in the 15th JDC is a topic that has continued to come up in conversations.
"In the 10 years that I've been representing the district, I've kept hearing from folks who didn't understand why Acadia has to be part of a three-parish district," Morrish said Tuesday morning in a telephone interview. He pointed out that his home parish of Jeff Davis has its own JDC, as does Cameron Parish, "which has only about 6,000 people."
Morrish said he spoke with other legislators, clerks of courts in the three parishes, the sheriffs there, and met with representatives of OneAcadiana as well as 15th JDC District Attorney Keith Stutes about the issue before introducing his resolution on May 25.
It was approved by the Senate Judiciary A Committee on May 30 and the full Senate on May 31. The resolution was approved by the House Judiciary Committee on June 2, and now awaits final passage.
The bill directs the Judicial Council to conduct a feasibility study on the cost and impact of separating the 15th JDC into separate judicial districts for each parish. The study will be due by January 12, 2018.
Morrish said the state has an interest in the issue because of its role in providing funding for the courts. "There could be some additional costs for the state," Morrish explained. "If this moves forward, you'd have two more district attorneys, maybe some assistant district attorneys and possibly some judges. We need to know all of that before moving forward."
Morrish said he's also interested in the Judicial Council's assessment on the impact of case loads by a possible separation.
"The Judicial Council crunches numbers, they'd be able to give us those answers," Morrish said.
The results of that study would not lead to an immediate separation. The Judicial Council has a set of guidelines that be followed to separate or to combine district courts.
District Attorney Keith Stutes, speaking from his office in Abbeville on Tuesday morning, said the idea of breaking up the 15th JDC has been around for as long as he's been practicing law.
"When I went to my first bar association meeting in 1976, that was the topic of discussion — breaking up the 15th JDC," Stutes recalled. He said Morrish had included him in the discussions. "I've been included in that loop," he added.
Stutes said the 15th JDC is one of only about five three-parish district courts remaining in the state. He pointed out that Lafayette dominates the district because of the population growth it experienced over the past half-century.
"Lafayette's got almost two-thirds of the population in the district, with Acadia and Vermilion having about a sixth each," Stutes said. Stutes added that it has been about 10 years since a judicial district has been split. "I believe the last time that was done, it involved DeSoto and Sabine parishes," Stutes recounted.
The three-parish district also provided Stutes standing to sue oil and gas companies for wetlands damage in Vermilion Parish last year, a move that remains highly controversial in the parish. Sen. Jonathan Perry of Kaplan is a co-sponsor of Morrish's resolution.