In The News › Group sues committee studying judges’ workloads

Jan 2, 2014

Source: The Advocate

Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish

Group sues committee studying judges’ workloads

By John Simerman

The Advocate

January 2, 2014

Public cajoling hasn’t seemed to work for a governmental watchdog group as it tries to shed light on the deliberations of a state Supreme Court committee studying the workload of judges in Orleans Parish and elsewhere in Louisiana.

A formal public-records request hasn’t done the trick either, according to the nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research.

So the group took legal action this week, filing a lawsuit against a committee led by state Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans. The lawsuit claims Murray’s committee, set up by the Louisiana Supreme Court at the request of the Legislature in 2011, is violating state “sunshine” laws by refusing to release records of its work or open its meetings to the public.

The suit comes just six weeks before Murray’s committee is slated to report its findings to state lawmakers, setting the stage for a potentially prickly legislative debate over cutting back on judges in some courts where caseloads have dropped.

That’s the case in several Orleans Parish courts, including criminal, civil, traffic and juvenile courts, according to recent studies by BGR, New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office and a city-hired consultant.

In its September report on Orleans Parish courts, BGR used the Supreme Court’s own rough-cut formula for assessing the need for judges based on caseloads. That formula, which assigns a point value to different types of cases, suggests the New Orleans courts could handle their workload with about 25 fewer judges.

The average judgeship in Orleans Parish costs $570,000 per year, including staff costs, according to the BGR report.

Local judges have argued the various studies are flawed, failing to take into account the complexity of some of the cases handled in the parish.

The committee’s charge is to come up with data-driven answers, but it is keeping the process under illegal wraps, according to the nonprofit watchdog group.

BGR President Janet Howard has been pushing the committee to do its work in the open and to produce its report on time, with the idea that would give legislators time to weigh its conclusions and take action before fall elections lock in judges for another six years on the bench.

The group’s lawsuit, filed Monday in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, says the Supreme Court rejected BGR’s request for all documents related to the work of the committee, which is made up of four judges, four state lawmakers including Murray, and two other people.

The committee has held just one public meeting on the judgeships, on a Wednesday morning in October in Baton Rouge. It sent out a notice Thursday for another Capitol hearing, on Jan. 23. The agenda includes a presentation by the National Center for State Courts, which is studying court workloads and judges statewide for the committee.

Although the Murray committee has been in place for two years, the national organization only applied to do the research job two months ago.

Critics worry that the committee may try to shirk a touchy political issue by either delaying a report on its work until it’s too late for the Legislature to respond or by quietly issuing one with mushy results.

Howard said BGR holds no firm view on whether certain courts are bloated with judges.

“The preliminary indicators are suggesting there is a potential surplus in Orleans Parish. BGR’s position is that the necessary analysis needs to be done to reach a final conclusion, and that needs to be done in a timely fashion, before the Legislature meets,” Howard said. “We think it’s very important that the process for that analysis be conducted in an open way.”

Murray said Thursday that holding back information about the committee’s work was “not my decision,” but that of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Catherine “Kitty” Kimball, based on state law.

In a Dec. 27 letter to the watchdog group, denying its request for documents, Supreme Court general counsel Lauren McHugh Rocha said the work of a judicial committee is “not subject to the open meetings law, even when judges are acting in the performance of their rulemaking or administrative functions.”

As for the release of any documents, Rocha cited a case in which the Supreme Court found it can withhold records that “we determine should remain confidential, in situations where we are exercising our inherent authority as the head of a separate and independent branch of state government.”

The watchdog group says that standard shouldn’t apply in this case because it’s the Legislature, not the court, that has the power to regulate the number of judges.

The group is asking the court either to order the committee to give up the documents and comply with state open-meeting laws, or to schedule a hearing within 10 days.

Murray said the committee is planning to issue its report on schedule next month, but that it still needs to visit a handful of courts and has not yet decided whether it will recommend trimming the bench or, if so, how.

“The commission has worked very hard. We’ve put lots of hours in,” Murray said. “I can’t tell you what’s going to be in (its report) because our work is not completed.”

Jan 2, 2014

Source: The Advocate

Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish

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