“I grew up out from Bernice [LA] in the community surrounding Pisgah Baptist Church, so we just called it the Pisgah Community. I was the first person in my family to go to college, much less to go to law school,” Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Jay McCallum told the Winnfield Rotary club when he visited with them at their weekly meeting on August 17, 2022. So, he says, God has been very good to him, bringing him from that humble beginning to serving on the highest court in the state, the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Justice McCallum spoke of opening his first law office in Farmerville, Louisiana, “between the bank and the funeral home,” where he handled cases of many types before going on to serve in the Louisiana House of Representatives for several years. He then went on to run for district judge in the Third Judicial District covering Lincoln and Union Parishes. After several years on the district bench, he ran for the Second Circuit Court of Appeal, where he served for three years before the seat for the 4th district on the Louisiana Supreme Court became vacant. He then ran for that seat and was elected to the high court. His term began on November 13, 2020.
Supreme Court District 4 covers 20 parishes in the northeast corner of the state and is geographically the largest of the seven supreme court districts. Justice McCallum says he and his wife enjoyed the “meeting people” all over the 20-parish area part of campaigning, although the other work involved in election campaigns was not so enjoyable. He has, however, really enjoyed his work as a supreme court justice for the last almost two years.
The difference between the courts of appeal and the supreme court in Louisiana is that “you have a right to appeal in the Court of Appeal,” explained McCallum, whereas “only those convicted of capital crimes have a right to be heard in the La. Supreme Court.“ If you don’t fall in that category, to have your case heard by the Supreme Court, you have to file a writ application, and then the court determines which cases it will review and decide. To decide whether the Supreme Court will hear the case, the justices consider whether the case involves issues most critical to the law and people of Louisiana, whether the five courts of appeal in the state are interpreting or applying the law the same or differently, if the lower courts in the state are all interpreting or applying the law incorrectly, or if the legal issue in the case has never been decided by the supreme court before.
“The work really is 24-hours-a-day,” he said, and explains that the previous night at 10:30, the decision on an emergency writ application was being transmitted by his law clerk to the district judge in a case that is being tried by a jury this week so the trial could proceed the next morning.
Justice McCallum says the thing about the work of the supreme court that has really surprised him is the volume of administrative duties. In addition to deciding the types of cases described earlier, the Supreme Court regulates the practice of law by attorneys as well as judicial practice within Louisiana. The seven justices on the supreme court have the last word on matters involving discipline of attorneys and judges in Louisiana’s state court system, so quite a lot of administrative work comes with the job of a supreme court justice.
McCallum is indeed glad to be on the court to help adjudicate and resolve legal issues important to the state and its people. While he knows some people run for office and use their authority to push
their own agendas, Justice McCallum says his philosophy is to apply the law as written and enacted by the legislature. He is proud that Louisiana is a civil law state, because it means that the people write and enact the laws through their elected representatives, and the law is then interpreted and applied by the courts in accordance with the legislature’s intention. This is unlike the common law, in which the courts make the law and interpret and apply it.
Justice McCallum has done some motivational speaking in the course of his career as a jurist. In telling how he came around to giving such talks, he says, “I am the last person in the world who should be on the Louisiana Supreme Court. I’m from a rural area, not from a population center of the district. Back in 1991, when I was running for my first elected office, we were running off Xerox copies of election materials because we had so little money. But I won anyway. Then I went on to win other elections, eventually to the supreme court! How can I NOT tell other people what GOD has done in my life?” His Christian faith requires him to talk about God’s influence in his life, and, by the way, he is only six hours shy of obtaining a Masters’ Degree of Divinity.
In closing, Justice McCallum handed out bookmarks bearing the scripture found in 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” He asks that we all pray for him as he goes about his duties as a Louisiana Supreme Court Justice.
The meeting was adjourned, as customary, with the Rotary motto, “Service above self!”