The Louisiana Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the matter entitled Lange Walker Allen, II v. Susan Taylor Allen, 13-CC-2778 (LA 05/07/2014) to determine whether the family court in St. Tammany and Washington Parishes (the parishes that make up the 22nd Judicial District Court “22nd JDC”) have subject matter jurisdiction over matters of property partition for divorcing couples when that partition involves separate property. “Subject matter jurisdiction” is defined by law as “the legal power and authority of a court to hear and determine a particular class of actions or proceedings, based upon the object of the demand, the amount in dispute, or the value of the right asserted.” La. C.C.P. art. 2. Ever since the First Circuit Court of Appeal first ruled that the family court did not have the subject matter jurisdiction to rule on matters arising out of a divorce if those matters related to separate property, this has been a hot button topic in the 22nd JDC.
Questions arose regarding just how broad sweeping the First Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision might be. Would it be narrowly limited to just those divorce matters involving separate property? Would it be interpreted so broadly as to invalidate all judgments issued by the family judges in the 22nd JDC? While these issues may seem benign at first glance, the potential ramifications were great. If the appeal court’s ruling was applied broadly, it could have invalidated some – and in the opinion of some, all – of the rulings issued by the family judges of the 22nd JDC since the family court’s inception in 2009. Last week, the Louisiana Supreme Court put the worst fears to rest.
In a well-reasoned opinion, the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned the ruling of the appeal court. The high court’s ruling confirms the subject matter jurisdiction of the family court for the 22nd JDC. According to the state’s high court, the family court divisions of the 22nd JDC do have the legal power and authority to rule on marital property partitions – even when those partitions involve separate property owned by the divorcing couple. While the issue in the Allen v. Allen matter was limited to marital property partitions involving separately owned property, the court’s language is arguably broad enough to confirm the family court’s legal authority to hear all “family and juvenile matters as provided by law.” La. R.S. 13:621.22.