In The News › New Orleans judges, city officials argue over cuts to judiciary

Oct 16, 2013

Source: | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish

New Orleans judges, city officials argue over cuts to judiciary

By Lauren McGaughy | The Times Picayune

October 16, 2013

Not many members of the public were present at a meeting in Baton Rouge on Wednesday set up solely to allow them to comment on the state of Louisiana’s judiciary. Instead, a spate of judges, attorneys and New Orleans officials spent nearly four hours trading barbs on whether or not the city judicial ranks are too bloated.

The committee hosting the meeting is charged with making recommendations to state lawmakers on whether or not certain judgeships are unnecessary. A report tracking judge caseload and cost is due to be provided to the state Supreme Court by February, just weeks before the 2014 legislative session.

But due to methodological problems and general disagreement over the what constitutes an “unnecessary” judge, it’s unclear whether the report will even be finished by that time.

On Wednesday, only four members of the public testified before the hosting committee. The room was instead packed with judges, staff and attorneys that nearly all argued against across-the-board cuts to the state judiciary.

The four members of the public, including St. Tammany resident Cindy LeBlanc argued more family court judges are needed because cases take far too long to adjudicate. LeBlanc also argued against judicial corruption and for term-limits on judges.

The judges — all but one from New Orleans — also focused on workload, saying they’re dealing with crammed dockets and complicated multi-year cases. They added the current method to calculate caseloads, based on a points system, is inherently flawed because it doesn’t take these issues into account.

Nearly every judge also took ample time to blast a recent report released by the New Orleans-based watchdog group the Bureau of Governmental Research, or BGR. “Benchmarking the Bench” used data produced by the state to suggest there could be a surplus of judges across nearly all of New Orleans’ courts.

While the report didn’t call for a culling of judges, it strongly urged the committee and the state Judicial Council to look into what judgeships were “unnecessary” or “surplus.” After the hearing Wednesday, BGR President Janet Howard said the sole purpose of the report was to “right-size” the system.

But, Chief Judge of the Criminal Court of New Orleans Camille Buras disagreed. She said the BGR report should not have been released because it provided a misleading picture to the public and lawmakers about the number of judges.

Edwin Lombard of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals also blasted the report, saying it was based on “bunk science.” “If you publish something and put it in this form, people will think that it’s official,” Lombard said. “This is a BGR opinion.”

Out of the 10 judges who testified Wednesday, only one provided a concrete recommendation for the committee. Paul Bonin, of the New Orleans-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said lawmakers should take another look at a piece of legislation that failed during the 2007 session.

Senate Bill 222, which passed the Senate but never went any further, would have allowed the Legislature to cut judgeships when a judge retired or died if they were deemed no longer necessary.

Current state law bans the elimination of any seat before the end of a judge’s term and also requires a two-thirds vote by state lawmakers to change the overall number of judgeships at any level. Since most judicial terms are six to eight years, legislators are left scrambling before terms expire to recommend whether any positions should be cut.

This is the case this year because 80 percent of New Orleans judges are up for reelection in November 2014. Two city officials, New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux and Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin, said due to this timing imperative, decisions needed to be made now.

Quatrevaux spent his entire testimony Wednesday arguing for the abolition of New Orleans’ Traffic Court, calling it “a useless appendage” and “caricature of the court.” That court’s Chief Judge Robert Jones said the IG’s suggestion was “dangerous” and his statements untrue.

Later, Kopplin argued that cutting judges would put funds back into state coffers that could be used for crime reduction and infrastructure improvements. But state Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, reminded Kopplin and those assembled that judicial salaried are not paid for out of the city budget.

Kopplin agreed, but then added that fewer judges would mean fewer staff and lower maintenance costs, which are footed out of city general funds. This is all thrown into sharper relief after New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Tuesday funds for a federal consent decree for the city prison were not included in this year’s budget.

Toward the end of the meeting, Luceia LeDoux, a former member of the Public Defenders Board, argued the approach to reforming the state’s judiciary needed to be holistic, not piecemeal, and focused on equal access to justice.

“We can’t afford just a ringing defense of the status quo,” she told the committee. She asked the committee to take a hard look at the public defense funding and the individual performance of each judge and court.

Speaking after the meeting, Murray said the committee would continue to compile the information necessary to finish their report by February. Neither he nor fellow committee member state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, committed to urging the Legislature to take another look at the 2007 legislation.

The committee will meet at least twice more before February. Those meetings will be closed to the public.

The committee members present at Wednesday’s meeting included: state Sens. Murray and Claitor, 1st Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Vanessa Guidry-Whipple, 21st Judicial District Court Judge Robert Morrison, retired 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Marion Edwards, past Louisiana State Bar Association President Michael Patterson and citizen member Fred Skelton. State Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe and 1st Judicial District Court Judge Ramona Emanuel were not in attendance.

Oct 16, 2013

Source: | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish

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