October 28, 2016
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards discussed the value of legal training, along with current challenges facing the state, with a standing-room-only audience at Tulane Law School on Oct. 26.
Photos by Paula Burch-Celentano
A lawyer who started his career in his family's small-town practice, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards told Tulane Law School students that he has called on his legal training to tackle problems as a legislator and now the state’s top elected official.
During his first nine months as governor, Edwards has faced multiple tests, including a billion-dollar budget crisis, record flooding twice in different parts of the state and a fatal police shooting of a civilian that prompted protests in Baton Rouge followed by an attack that killed three officers.
Edwards said the combination of his military background, legal education and courtroom experience has “served me pretty well to understand the challenges and to try to respond to them effectively.”
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Students, faculty and alumni packed Weinmann Hall’s Wendell H. Gauthier Appellate Moot Court Room to standing-room-only for Edwards’ Oct. 26 address, which was sponsored by the Tulane Law student chapter of the American Association for Justice.
Edwards graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, spent eight years as an Army Airborne Ranger then clerked for Judge James Dennis on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans before returning to his hometown of Amite, Louisiana. He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2007 and then governor in 2015.
“I wasn't 100 percent sure what I wanted to do when I got out of the Army, but I knew a law degree would prepare me,” he said, pointing out that the training can be helpful in business, government and other fields.
He practiced initially with his father, a former sheriff, and a brother (currently the Tangipahoa Parish sheriff), handling a variety of civil cases, though primarily representing plaintiffs. But Edwards said he “never thought poorly of anyone because they became a criminal defense lawyer” because of their vital importance to a functioning criminal justice system.
He emphasized that lawyers using the law to help people is fact not fantasy, despite the often-negative public perception of the legal profession.
“I laugh at lawyer jokes, too," he said. "But, at some point, I think, some of it becomes injurious to our profession.”
He added that “It’s incumbent upon all of us to uphold the ideals of our profession and make sure people know it is a noble cause.”
A Democrat in a heavily Republican state, Edwards cautioned against easy labels and underscored that lawyers can play a role in turning down the heat of politics and improving governance. He said he believes in bipartisan problem-solving and remaining cordial with those who see an issue differently.
“One of the things that has prepared me for that is being a lawyer,” he said. “We advocate on behalf of our clients, but we don't ever have to be personally at odds with opposing counsel. ... That’s what lawyers bring to the legislature and to public office.”
He noted that non-lawyer legislators often seek help from their attorney colleagues to understand bills they have to vote on, and “being an attorney really does confer an advantage” in that regard.
In a kind of insiders’ lawyer joke, he said attorneys get continuing legal education credit for serving in the Louisiana Legislature, but he added, “Much to my chagrin, I found out that’s not the case if you happen to be an attorney in the governor’s office.”
Edwards’ wide-ranging comments touched on topics including Medicaid expansion, reducing the state’s incarceration rate and, during questions from the audience, such ongoing challenges as underfunded public defender offices, diminishing jobs in the fossil fuel industry and mental health services, especially for those caught in the criminal justice system.
He urged students to engage in public service, whether as elected officials or through other avenues, including joining community and business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary and Kiwanis.
“You don’t have to hold elective office to be a public servant,” he said. “Really, as members of the bar, you’re going to be public servants.”