In The News › Too many New Orleans judges making too many headlines: James Varney

Aug 14, 2014

Source: | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish

Too many New Orleans judges making too many headlines: James Varney

By James Varney | The Times-Picayune

August 14, 2014

New Orleans has too many judges. And those it does have haven’t been on their best behavior lately.

As for the first problem, it’s a progressive sign when the conversation about government moves from “should it be trimmed” to “let’s trim more.” Unfortunately, sometimes government throws itself a life ring.

That’s what appears to be going on with Secretary of State Tom Schedler’s apparent decision to put five juvenile judge seats on the ballot this November. Schedler’s move would preserve a judgeship already slated for abolition by law and currently inoperative because Judge Yolanda King has been suspended since her March indictment for allegedly lying about where she lives.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been on the right side of all this, and his team has filed a lawsuit trying to get the ballot down to four judges. Schedler also appears to be sidestepping the Legislature’s intent, given that the law contains the same language the state Supreme Court used while suspending King.

The number on the ballot would be five times as many as Orleans Parish probably needs. Studies by both the Bureau of Governmental Research and the Supreme Court concluded the city would do just fine if its Juvenile Court bench ran but one judge deep.

Alas, King isn’t the only judge – and Juvenile Court not the only venue – making recent headlines.

The ability of an obscure hired hand to allegedly steal hundreds of thousands from Traffic Court has been in the news, and Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell Jr. has lost his latest battle with the Taxman.

Cantrell has been fighting the Internal Revenue Service for a long time now over a surprisingly large bill. A three-judge panel from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously last week that he owes a total of $609,000 to the IRS.

Cantrell has spent 15 years in the criminal courts building, almost all of that time as a magistrate commissioner, an appointment that comes through a secret vote of the Criminal District Court judges and carries a six-year term and a salary of around $75,000.

Cantrell also had a gig as a professor at Southern University of New Orleans and served stints as a special counsel to the Vieux Carre Commission and the Historic District Landmarks Commission.

But he wasn’t wearing all those hats in 2001. Even if he had been, the combined salaries wouldn’t come anywhere near the $1.5 million in gross income Cantrell claimed on his tax return that year. After some preliminary squabbling, an IRS employee calculated a bill of $312,624, which Cantrell “paid immediately.” But the agency rejected that figure.

Cantrell appears to have at least some legal practice going, too, given in 2003 the Supreme Court disciplined him by suspending his license for a year and a day (the punishment was deferred).

Yet how does a magistrate commissioner and political gadfly come to be making well over a million bucks and able to write six-figure checks?

I asked Cantrell that very question Thursday. Citing ongoing litigation, he politely declined to answer.

Of course, King may be found not guilty and Cantrell may one day owe the IRS nothing. Traffic Court may morph one day into a steely-eyed custodian of public money.

Similarly, one day perhaps Orleans Parish will have only as many judges as it needs and not more. Can that day come soon enough?

Aug 14, 2014

Source: | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish

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