In The News › BGR sues state committee assessing judgeships for access to records, meetings

Jan 2, 2014

Source: | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish

BGR sues state committee assessing judgeships for access to records, meetings

By Helen Freund | The Times-Picayune

January 2, 2014

After issuing a blistering report flagging potential judicial surpluses in Orleans Parish and across the state, a government watchdog organization on Monday (Dec. 30) filed a lawsuit demanding access to all records and meetings of the state Supreme Court-appointed committee tasked with evaluating possible “unnecessary” judgeships.

The lawsuit, filed by the Bureau of Governmental Research in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, alleges that the committee has violated state law by “meeting behind closed doors and denying the public access to its records.”

At the request of the state Legislature, which sets the number of judges in the state’s courts, the committee is charged with assessing the number of judgeships across the state and making recommendations to state lawmakers.

So far, the BGR says, the committee has denied its request for access to most records related to its findings and also has denied access to its meetings, a practice that the organization claims violates state public records and open meetings laws.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a Dec. 5 statement from the watchdog agency calling for the committee to conduct its work in an “open and transparent manner” to ensure “public accountability and a credible re-evaluation of the number of judges in the various courts.”

“Transparency is essential to assessing the quality of the advice and holding the committee accountable,” said Janet Howard, president and CEO of the Bureau of Governmental Research.

Monday’s lawsuit asks for a court order mandating that the committee’s chairman, Sen. Edwin Murray, D-N.O., make all records related to the committee’s meetings available to the public. Calls to Murray’s office were not immediately returned.

The suit also asks that members of the public be allowed to attend the meetings. So far, only one public hearing, in October, has been held by the committee, a statement from BGR said.

After the BGR requested access to the committee’s meetings and all records relating to its work, an attorney for the state Supreme Court, responding on behalf of the committee, denied the group’s request, stating that the judiciary is not subject to the state’s open meetings and public records statutes.

Claiming the committee is a public body, the BGR suit argues that the committee is subject to transparency laws and claims that there are no exemptions that would permit the committee to withhold public records or conduct closed meetings.

According to BGR’s September report, “Benchmarking the Bench,” the average cost of a judgeship in Orleans Parish is $570,000 a year, which clocks in at roughly $3.4 million over a six-year term.

The report indicates that Louisiana could stand to lose 24 percent of its judgeships and estimates that New Orleans could make do with 20 judges, rather than the 45 that currently preside over its seven courts.

“Benchmarking the Bench” used data produced by the state to highlight the possibility of a surplus of judges across nearly all of New Orleans’ courts and strongly urged the committee and the state Judicial Council to closely evaluate which judgeships were “unnecessary” or “surplus.”

In October, Orleans Parish judges met with the state Supreme Court’s Judicial Council and attacked the report’s methodology. They advised the council that it should act carefully and deliberately before reaching any decision about the number of judgeships in New Orleans.

“The court maintains that to adopt the drastic measures in the BGR report would truly compromise public safety,” said Camille Buras, chief judge of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court at the time.

September’s report also called on the state Legislature to eliminate any judgeships deemed unnecessary before the 2014 elections in November, when 80 percent of the judges in Orleans Parish are up for re-election.

Should the Legislature fail to act before then, a constitutional prohibition against shortening a sitting judge’s term will “forestall any meaningful reform until 2020,” the report said.

State law currently bans the elimination of any seat before the end of a judge’s term. It also requires a two-thirds vote by state lawmakers to change the overall number of judgeships.

The report tracking judges’ caseloads and costs is due to the state Supreme Court by February, just weeks shy of the 2014 legislative session.

Jan 2, 2014

Source: | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish

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