In The News › BGR Report: New Orleans courts bloated with judges

Sep 3, 2013

Source: The Advocate

Filed under: Courts, Government Finance, Orleans Parish

BGR Report: New Orleans courts bloated with judges

BY JOHN SIMERMAN

The Advocate

September 03, 2013

Some $14 million could be saved by ridding New Orleans courts of more than half their judges, a reduction supported by a formula for estimating workloads for jurists across the state, according to a report released Tuesday by the Bureau of Governmental Research.

With the 33-page report, the government watchdog group aims to shine a public spotlight on an issue being studied by a state commission led by Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans.

A report by the state’s Judicial Council on Louisiana’s 97 district and city courts is due in February. But BGR president Janet Howard says the council has lagged on another report that was due last year on the appellate courts. If the legislature fails to shrink the number of judges in the city before election season next fall, she said, much of the potential cost savings would be lost for six years.

“What we’re asking is that they follow through with the work that’s needed to reach a definitive conclusion, and they do so in time to deal with the problem before the November 2014 election,” Howard said. “If we don’t, we’re stuck.”

At stake is a push that began after Hurricane Katrina to “right size” the court system in Orleans Parish. The move has met with stiff political resistance, even amid the consolidation of other government functions in the city, such as the mergers of seven different assessors’ offices and the civil and criminal sheriff’s offices.

State law in 2006 mandated a consolidation of civil, criminal and juvenile courts in New Orleans. But the Legislature in 2008 postponed it until 2014, then scrapped it altogether last year.

This year, the political strength of the state judiciary was on display as Mayor Mitch Landrieu failed to win support to shrink juvenile court from six judges to four. Murray argued against the reduction, urging a Senate committee to wait for the commission’s report.

Under a state resolution, the Judicial Council must issue annual reports giving the results of a workload formula for the courts, with a point system for the various types of cases that judges handle. Those reports, however, have not included recommendations on what to do when the statistics don’t add up to the number of judges on the bench.

Under that formula, the New Orleans court system is extremely bloated, according to the BGR report, which echoes the conclusions of reports by New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office and a consultant for the city.

The new report claims that the criminal and civil district courts in Orleans Parish have more than twice the number of judges they need, with an excess across the city’s seven courts that tops the 10 largest district courts in Louisiana. Reduced case loads in the district courts, as well as in Juvenile Court, only have expanded the surplus of judges, the report suggests.

For instance, juvenile court filings have dropped from about 9,000 to about 1,700 over two decades. According to the report, Juvenile Court is the most severely overstaffed in the city. Its six judges are five too many, the report claims. Traffic Court filings have declined by nearly half in about a decade, with similarly large declines in the two city courts.

Criminal District Court case loads also have been on the decline, with Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office overseeing a shift of thousands of low-level crimes to Municipal Court in recent years.

The report found that only Municipal Court, with four judges, now stands at the right number. All told, judges in the city should number about 20, not the 45 that currently sit on the bench. Fewer judges would also mean fewer staffing needs in the various courthouses.

According to the report, losing a single criminal court judge, for instance, would result in $715,242 in savings. More than half of that is paid by the city, with the rest from the state.

The report acknowledges that the estimates don’t take into account that some felony cases or civil lawsuits are more complex and demand more of a judge’s time.

Officials in Orleans Parish civil cases argue that the formula fails to take into account class action and asbestos cases that can drag on for years. However, the report also said that when researchers asked for the number of those cases, “the court responded that it did not have the data.”

The watchdog group recommends deeper review by the Judicial Council, including site visits, by February, with regular assessments in the future. A civil district court spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Robert Kazik, judicial administrator for criminal district court, also did not immediately respond.

Valerie Willard, spokeswoman for the state Supreme Court, said the formula was established to assess when to add judges, not subtract them.

“We just don’t have a formula at this point yet for reduction,” Willard said. “It’s not like the issue is lost on the court. The legislature and the court have been in regular conversation and assessing and watching.”

She declined to comment directly on the BGR report.

Murray said the commission is still receiving data from the courts statewide, but is looking into what formula to use — and place into law — to slash judgeships.

“There is no requirement in law to look at reducing the number of judges, and in fact we’ve been looking across the country to determine what other states have done. We have not found a formula that any state has used,” he said.

Quatrevaux, whose 2011 report recommended the consolidation of the Municipal and Traffic courts, said the numbers come down to dollars and cents.

“If you want to pay for a consent decree” governing police or jail reforms, for instance, “you need to can some judges. You can’t have it both ways,” Quatrevaux said. “If we don’t get better and managing money and reducing unnecessary costs, we’ll end up like Detroit.”

Michael Cowan, who heads the New Orleans Crime Coalition, said the plan is to begin pressing state lawmakers for reductions on the bench in the fall.

“All of the studies plainly point in the same direction” — slicing the number of judges in the city, Cowan said. “These three studies can’t be so far off that no reductions are called for. The question is how, and where.”

According to the BGR study, the formula points to reducing the number of civil court judges from 14 to 7; criminal court judges from 13 to 7; Traffic Court judges from four to one, and shedding one city court judge.

In the meantime, nine candidates are in the running to fill an open seat in Traffic Court in the upcoming Oct. 19 election.

Sep 3, 2013

Source: The Advocate

Filed under: Courts, Government Finance, Orleans Parish

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