BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Lawyers for Louisiana’s governor and attorney general sparred Tuesday over the scope of the elected officials’ authority and whether an executive order aimed at protecting LGBT rights in state government crossed a constitutional line.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, is asking an appeals court to reinstate his April 2016 order banning discrimination in government and state contracts based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A district court judge blocked enforcement in December in response to a lawsuit from Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican.
A three-judge panel of a Louisiana appeals court heard arguments Tuesday, but did not immediately issue a decision.
Edwards’ attorney Matthew Block said District Court Judge Todd Hernandez “just got it wrong” when he ruled the Edwards order violated Louisiana’s constitutional separation of powers.
Hernandez agreed with Landry that Edwards’ order was executive overreach, unconstitutionally seeking to create state law and trying to circumvent Louisiana lawmakers who have refused to write such LGBT-rights protections into statute.
“The executive order is not law,” Block said. “It is internal policy to the executive branch about employment and about contracting standards.”
Landry’s lawyer Elizabeth Murrill said Edwards is claiming authority Louisiana’s governor isn’t granted in the state constitution, trying to enact hiring and contracting requirements for other elected officials in the government’s executive branch.
“There are a number of other statewide elected officials who are not under the direction of the governor, and you have seen in the briefs I think that the governor believes that they are,” Murrill said. “And that, I would submit to you, is a rewriting of the constitution.”
Edwards and Landry have clashed repeatedly since taking office in 2016. Landry is considered a possible challenger to Edwards in the 2019 governor’s race. Landry attended Tuesday’s court hearing, while Edwards was meeting with U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson in New Orleans.
Appeals Court Judge Guy Holdridge asked Block what would happen to someone who doesn’t follow the executive order if it was in force, questioning how strict the enforcement would be or if the order was an “aspirational goal.”
Block said someone who works for the governor could be removed for not adhering to policy and someone with a state contract could be found in breach of the agreement.
After the hearing, Block added, however, that the governor would have limited ways to enforce the LGBT-rights policy on other statewide elected officials. He couldn’t force those officials to following the hiring guidance, Block said, and could only mandate the anti-discrimination language in contracts over which the Edwards administration has review.
Holdridge asked Murrill if part of the governor’s executive order could be upheld, as it relates to Edwards’ own employees.
“Could we find his order constitutional on a limited basis?” Holdridge asked.
Murrill replied: “I don’t think you can partially uphold the executive order.”
The Edwards administration claims the order is consistent with directives issued by previous Louisiana governors Edwin Edwards and Kathleen Blanco.
But Edwards’ order goes further than that issued by the two prior Democratic leaders. He added language protecting against discrimination based on gender identity, a provision that protects transgender people. Landry’s attorneys have said that term isn’t defined and could create legal problems and ambiguity for employers.
When Edwards issued his order last year, Landry blocked dozens of legal services contracts that contained the anti-discrimination language. After Hernandez declared the order invalid, the LGBT protections were stripped from the contracts, and that stalemate ended.
As part of the lawsuit, the two statewide elected officials also are disputing the scope of the attorney general’s authority over legal contracts.
Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte