LAKE CHARLES, La. (KPLC) - The Chief Judge of Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal retires effective in January.
Chief Judge Gene Thibodeaux’s legacy includes his service on the court and his role in establishing the minority districts that have shaped today’s court.
As recently as the 1980′s it was rare for minority judges to be elected, but then attorney Gene Thibodeaux helped change that.
“In 1988 there were only six black judges in the state of Louisiana, four of whom were from New Orleans, two outside New Orleans. So, a class action suit was filed disputing the manner in which judges were elected, that is, disputing the at large election system. The court ruled in our favor and as a result of that the legislature created sub-districts within the courts of appeal.”
Thibodeaux is pleased to have been part of the legal team to bring about long awaited change.
“I feel great about that. I think that’s one of the highlights of my career. I think it brought a lot of diversity to the court. It literally changed the complexion of the court and it created a sense of legitimacy in the entire legal community and in the community at large. That is, I think people have more confidence in the system now.”
Thibodeaux was elected without opposition to the Third Circuit in 1992 and became chief in 2004. He says his most significant achievement may be helping to bring technological advances to the court.
“We’re on the verge of electronic filing, after which the attorneys will not have to come to court to file documents. The public will not have to come to the court, it will be done electronically as it is being done in federal court. We have a document system in the court and a case management system that will allow us to work from anywhere in the world.”
Though Thibodeaux is retiring from the court, he says he doesn’t plan to slow down. For one, he spearheaded the creation of charter schools here and will continue to be involved in educating young people.
“I want the community to know I’m retiring from the court. I’m not retiring and will be very active in the community and with respect to social activism I’m going to principally limit that to my charter school activities and the SWLA Center for Health Services. And if selected issues come up during my private life, I’m going to be involved in that also, though it depends on what those issues are.”
He also plans to continue to work.
“I’m going to join a local law firm and I have several offers I’m going to consider. It’s just a matter of narrowing down the issues of which is most compatible with what I want to do. So, I’m going to be doing limited private practice. I’m going to be doing selected cases, primarily in the appellate arena and I’m also going to be engaging in mediation of cases, civil cases.”
Thibodeaux is only leaving the Third Circuit because in Louisiana judges cannot run for re-election after age 70.
“We were disappointed that we could not serve any longer because our experience will not be used and the court, the state, will have to pay for another new judge as well as my retirement. So, from a fiscal standpoint it’s irresponsible. But no, we’re not angry, not at all.”
Though judges primarily judge cases, he says they are also responsible for helping to assure that people have faith in the legal system.
“There’s a lot of cynicism about the legal profession and about the judiciary and judges and lawyers have not done enough to dispel that public cynicism. So, I think it’s up to us and I’ve tried to do that. I’ve tried to make the court accessible. I’ve tried to make the court and public aware of what we do. And I think the court staff should reflect the community at large and I’ve tried to do my best to make sure that our court is reflective of the diversity of our community. And I think I’ve succeeded.”
Thibodeaux says he hopes that the Third Circuit continues to be a public and attorney friendly court seen by the public as being fair, efficient and effective at helping people navigate the system.
Thibodeaux says he expects to decide which law firm to join within the next week or so.
The chief judge is picked based on seniority. Judge Sylvia Cooks of Lafayette will follow Thibodeaux as chief.
District Court Judge Sharon Wilson was recently elected to fill Judge Thibodeaux’s seat on the Third Circuit Court of Appeal.