Judge won't make official OK contracts with LGBT language

Posted October 17

— Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards' attempt to force the state attorney general to sign off on legal contracts that include anti-discrimination language to protect LGBT people was thrown out Monday by a state judge.

Judge Donald Johnson dismissed the case, saying the law doesn't spell out clearly what the attorney general's authority is in reviewing the contracts and whether Attorney General Jeff Landry's role is only "ministerial" in nature, as the governor's office suggested.

"I believe the law is uncertain, that it does not provide the court with a clear path," the Baton Rouge state district judge said.

Edwards' lawyer, Matthew Block, said the governor intends to appeal the decision.

The Democratic governor issued an executive order in April requiring language barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity to be included in most state contracts, except if the contractors are religious organizations.

Lawmakers have refused to add such protections into Louisiana law.

The Republican attorney general says Edwards' order exceeds the governor's legal authority and establishes a new protected class of people that doesn't exist in statute. Landry has blocked dozens of contracts to let state agencies and boards hire outside lawyers that contain the anti-discrimination language.

Edwards sued Landry in September, saying the stalled contracts were disrupting the normal operations of state government.

Landry issued a statement applauding Johnson's ruling.

"I will not cower to executive overreach," the attorney general said. "Rather, I will continue to defend our constitution and the will of the people."

No contracts besides those for hiring outside lawyers were affected by the judge's decision.

The governor's office noted that Johnson didn't rule on whether Edwards' executive order was legal, but instead on the more technical aspect of the attorney general's authority in reviewing contracts for hiring private attorneys to work for state agencies.

"This was in no way a ruling on the merits of the executive order," Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said in a statement.

It wasn't clear whether the contracts would be resubmitted without the anti-discrimination language required under Edwards' order.

"The governor is reviewing his options," Carbo said. "But he will not let this issue distract from the important issues facing our state today, nor will he allow state operations to be crippled by the injection of politics into the process of approving legal counsel."

The dispute is one of many between the two statewide elected officials, who have clashed repeatedly since both took office in January on financial and legal issues.

Donald Price, a lawyer representing the governor, said Landry's office is supposed to do a "ministerial" review of contracts for agencies and boards to hire outside lawyers, making sure the lawyers are qualified to do the work and the fee structure complies with state law. Anything beyond that, Price said, exceeds the attorney general's authority.

Chester Cedars, a lawyer for Landry's office, said the constitution and state law provides "a great deal of discretion" in the attorney general's review of the contracts as the chief legal officer for Louisiana. A lawyer may meet the minimum qualifications established in law, for example, but may not have enough experience in the type of work involved in the contract, Cedars said.

Contracts at the Office of Elderly Affairs, at the Corrections Department and on medical malpractice cases are among those stalled because of the argument. Offices overseen by other Republican statewide elected officials have seen contracts rejected as well, including agencies led by the secretary of state, insurance commissioner, agriculture commissioner and treasurer.

Elizabeth Murrill, an attorney in Landry's office, said the LGBT clause wasn't the only point of contention in some of the contracts. But Price said agencies "were getting routine denials based on the anti-discrimination language."

Edwards' anti-discrimination order is similar to orders enacted by two former Louisiana Democratic governors — but he added language protecting against discrimination based on gender identity, a provision that protects transgender people.


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