The Judicial System of Louisiana[1] began in 1712 with the creation of a Superior Council with executive and judicial powers from a French Charter. In 1769 the Cabildo, who appointed judges of a general jurisdiction, following Spanish judicial custom, replaced the Superior Council. From 1803 to 1804, Governor C. C. Claiborne was vested with the power of the Court of the last resort in both civil and criminal matters.

In 1804, the United States Congress created the Superior Court, of general jurisdiction. Shortly thereafter the Legislative Council established courts with criminal jurisdiction and jury trials, replacing Governor Claiborne’s judicial authority.

In 1812, Louisiana became a state and adopted a Constitution, which created a Supreme Court, the only appellate court in the state, its jurisdiction being limited to civil appeals. The Constitution of 1845 gave the Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction in criminal and civil cases.

Prior to 1879, there were no intermediate appellate courts in Louisiana . Courts of appeal were created by the Constitution of 1879 in order to mitigate docket congestion and delay in the Louisiana Supreme Court. The Constitution of 1879 created six courts of appeal, one of which was designated the Court of Appeal for the parish of Orleans , that presided over civil cases only. The rest if the state was divided into five circuits, numbered from one to five, with a Court of Appeal created for each.[2]

The Orleans Courts of Appeal’s jurisdiction was limited both geographical and by jurisdictional amount. The court heard appeals from the lower courts in Orleans Parish, with a further limitation that civil and probate cases heard by the court were confined to those involving matters in dispute valued at greater than $200 but equal to or less than exactly $1000. An additional clause provided that “Said appeals shall be upon questions of law alone in all cases involving less than five hundred dollars, exclusive of interest, and upon the law and the facts in other cases.”[3] The right to review de novo factual issues was based on the civil law method from France and Spain . Judges of the Orleans Court of Appeal were elected by the two houses of the General Assembly in joint session until 1898.

The small jurisdictional amount requirement proved limited in practice. Therefore, the Louisiana legislature in 1884 amended the jurisdictional amount to allow appeals in cases involving matters in dispute valued at at least $100, but equal to or less that $2000.

Judicial staffing and procedures of the original court were unusual. Initially, the Court of Appeal for the Parish of Orleans was comprised of two judges. When both judges agreed their decision was a final judgment. However, when the judges disagreed, the judgment of the lower court was affirmed. Because this procedure was obviously unsatisfactory, an amendment to the 1884 Constitution was passed, providing that when two judges disagreed, they were required to select and appoint a lawyer, who possessed the qualifications for a judge of the Court of Appeal to act as the third judgment and resolve the conflict. Subsequently, approval by two judges became a final judgment.

Eventually, it became apparent that the territorial and jurisdictional limitations in the Court of Appeal were inefficient and expensive to operate. The Constitution of 1898 enlarged the Court of Appeal for the Parish of Orleans to three judges, who would be elected by voters within the circuit, and increased the geographical jurisdiction to include civil appeals from the Parishes of Jefferson, St. Charles , Plaquemines, and St. Bernard, in addition to those from the Parish of Orleans.[4] The Constitution also provided for civil appellate jurisdiction over the City Court of New Orleans and that all such appeals “Shall be tried de novo, and the judges of the Court of Appeal may provide rules that one or more of the judges shall try such cases, which they shall be authorized to decide immediately after trial, and without written opinion.”[5] The procedure of a de novo, single judge trial, for small claims, was quintessentially European.

In 1906, the Court’s territorial jurisdiction was further expanded to include the Parishes of St. James and St. John the Baptist, a total of 7 parishes.[6]

The Constitution of 1921 implemented significant changes to expand the jurisdiction of the Courts of Appeal. The judges were elected to twelve-year terms of office. Jurisdiction was extended to all civil appeals for damages for injuries or death, regardless of the amount in dispute, as well as all suits for worker’s compensation under any State of Federal Compensation Act .[7] Prior to this time most of these appeals were direct to the Louisiana Supreme Court because of jurisdictional amount.

In 1958, it became apparent that the Louisiana Supreme Court could no longer manage its docket without significant delay. Therefore, a number of radical changes to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the Courts of Appeal were enacted by Constitutional amendments, to take effect in 1960. Those changes provided for a major reallocation of appellate authority between the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. A fourth Court of Appeal was added to the existing three.

With few exceptions, all civil appeals without limitation were allowed to proceed directly to the Courts of Appeal, and that by Writ of Certiorari to the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeal for the Parish of Orleans eliminated the single judge de novo appeal from the City Court of Orleans; instead, those appeals would be treated like any civil appeal. However, the Supreme Court would continue to have general exclusive criminal jurisdiction over all criminal appeals in every other conviction in which a fine of $500 or a sentence of more than six months was imposed.

In 1960, the name of the Court was changed from the Court of Appeal for the Parish of Orleans to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal for the State of Louisiana . Its domicile was and is the City of New Orleans .

Eventually, the new system proved unworkable because of the explosion of criminal appeals to the Supreme Court. The Louisiana Constitution was amended in 1980, effective July 1, 1982, transferring all criminal appellate jurisdiction from the Supreme Court to the Courts of Appeal, except in cases where the death penalty has actually been imposed. The Supreme Court retained jurisdiction to review judgments by writ application of the Courts of Appeal in both civil and criminal cases.

The 1980 legislation divided the Fourth Circuit into two parts. The parishes of Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines remained in the Fourth Circuit, while the Parishes of Jefferson, St. Charles, St. James and St. John the Baptist were transferred to the newly created Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal, located in Gretna, Louisiana. The 1982 legislation also increased the number of Fourth Circuit judges from six to twelve. The Court is currently composed of two judges elected from the large population of the three parishes, one each from St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish, and eight from Orleans Parish.

To date 62 judges have served on either the Court of Appeal for the Parish of Orleans or the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal.

Retired Judge Steven R. PLotkin By Steven R. Plotkin
Retired Judge, Louisiana Court of Appeal
Fourth Circuit
New Orleans, Louisiana


[1] Michael Savicki, my Tulane Law School extern, was indispensable in researching this history.
[2] Id. Arts. 95-106(1879)
[3] Id. Art. 101(1879)
[4] La. Const. Art. 131 (1898)
[5] Id. Art. 134 (1898)
[6] La. Acts 1906, No. 137, adopted La. Const. (1906)
[7] La. Const. Art. VII 610,29 (1921)