In The News › Slimming down New Orleans’ court system will require more judicial study, legislative will

Slimming down New Orleans’ court system will require more judicial study, legislative will

By Ken Daley

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

November 19, 2015

The future could have a slimming effect on a New Orleans courts system that ranks as the most bloated in the state. But how drastic a makeover it may bring, and when, remains largely a question of political and judicial will.

With its separate municipal, traffic, city, juvenile, civil and criminal courts, Orleans Parish has more separate judicial systems banging gavels than any parish in the state. Each of the parish’s 44 judgeships is maintained at an average annual personnel cost of $571,000, according to a 2013 estimate by the private non-profit Bureau of Governmental Research.

The BGR that year issued a report urging the Louisiana legislature and the state Supreme Court “to promptly take all steps necessary to identify and recommend the elimination of excess judgeships in Orleans Parish” to prevent the waste of public money.

The report said data from the Judicial Council, the research arm of the high court, suggested Louisiana courts outside of Orleans Parish had 24 percent more judges than actually needed. The surplus in Orleans Parish was estimated at 125 percent – 45 judges when 20 would suffice. It was recommended that a Supreme Court committee apply a more precise workload formula to determine if New Orleans indeed had 25 more judges than actually needed.

Urgent action was recommended, because 2014 offered New Orleans a reform window that would not open again for six years.

“Under the constitution, you cannot eliminate a judgeship during a sitting judge’s term,” explained Celeste Coco-Ewing, the BGR’s president and CEO. “So, 2014 presented a unique opportunity, because 80 percent of Orleans Parish judges were up for re-election. That presented a time when the legislature could have looked at addressing the sizing of courts, and done it in a constitutional manner.”

But neither the high court nor lawmakers in Baton Rouge warmed to the task of cutting jobs for judges that fall, no matter the potential taxpayer savings. As the state now lurches through another budget shortfall, Coco-Ewing said she is hopeful legislators will seize their next opportunity in 2020.

“There could be some real savings for any one judgeship that’s eliminated,” Coco-Ewing said. “So the real call of the report was for the Supreme Court and the Judicial Council to come up with some recommendations, to do that kind of necessary digging down to find out the appropriate size of these courts.

“I don’t know that there’s anybody working on this right now. We’ve checked in with the court within the last year, to see if they plan to go forward with this study. And, at that point, they had no plans to go forward with this study that was called for by the committee.”

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the state legislature did pass a bill that called for the merger of Orleans Parish’s Juvenile, Civil and Criminal district courts by 2010. That proposed merger would not have eliminated any judgeships immediately. But the consolidation plan eventually was deferred until 2014, then killed off completely by oppositions from judges and some lawmakers.

Smaller changes to New Orleans’ judicial landscape are on the way, nonetheless.

Following the recommendation of a 2011 city Inspector General’s report, lawmakers passed a bill ordering consolidation of New Orleans’ municipal and traffic courts as of Jan. 1, 2017. That bill also requires a task force to study whether the eight judgeships being merged (four each from municipal and traffic court) appear excessive for the caseloads. It is expected that some court staff will be rendered redundant even if all eight judges are retained.

BGR found that nationwide, only two states eliminated judgeships between 2009-12. But budget crunches prompted 17 states to delay filling vacant judgeships, according to a survey by the National Center for State Courts.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in February 2013 proposed eliminating two of the city’s six Juvenile Court judges, and he partially succeeded, after surviving a summer setback.

Landrieu helped push through a state law that eliminated the seat of retiring juvenile Judge Lawrence Lagarde at the end of 2014. A second judgeship is to be eliminated with the next juvenile judge’s death, resignation, retirement, removal from office or disqualification. But that provision could not be implemented before voters elected Desiree Cook-Calvin to replace the suspended Yolanda King, who this month was convicted of falsifying and filing fraudulent election documents.

Having spent time, energy and political capital in that fight, it appears unlikely the Landrieu administration will seek to eliminate more judgeships.

“Since taking office in 2010, Mayor Landrieu has supported reforms that have prioritized creating efficiencies in our judicial court system,” Deputy Mayor and CAO Andy Kopplin said. “We are continuing to work with our partners in the legislature and the judges to improve coordination, so that our criminal justice system delivers better results to our residents in the most cost-effective way.”

Even if the mayor has moved on to other priorities, Coco-Ewing said the landscape still can shift for other lawmakers as the 2020 opportunity approaches. Legislators would have until Oct. 1, 2019, to pass a law eliminating judgeships that would be up for re-election the following year.

“I think it’s something that the legislature and the Supreme Court and its Judicial Council should continue to look at,” she said, “and work towards the recommendations that their committee had: To update the workload formula and to regularly assess judgeship needs.”

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