James Gill: Judicial reform effort seems doomed

The wheels of justice grind slowly, they say, but that shouldn’t be the case in Louisiana, which has judges out the wazoo.

The surfeit is especially marked in New Orleans, where several courts have always appeared to serve principally as a means of job creation. Since Katrina left the city with a much reduced population, judges there have spent even more time twiddling their thumbs on the taxpayer’s dime. A Bureau of Governmental Research study last year concluded that New Orleans, which has 45 judges, could get by with 20 and save $14 million a year.

Consultants hired by the city also concluded the judiciary is severely bloated, while Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux is another critic of the city’s judicial boondoggle. He has long called for a merger of the traffic and municipal courts. A bill to accomplish that, and abolish two of eight judgeships, was introduced in the recent session, but legislators weren’t about to be trapped into making a decision. They amended the bill to set up a task force on the absurd pretext that more study was required.

This is an old trick, and one that also has been played by a committee established by the Legislature to examine the state’s court system. The committee, chaired by Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, was given three years to recommend reforms, but that proved too hot a pace. When the deadline arrived in February, the committee advised that it was still puzzling over formulas for determining caseloads.

Politicians’ loyalties tend to be to other politicians, so it is no surprise that legislators and committee members will find ways to keep judges in office. The constitution says judgeships cannot be abolished midterm, so, with another round of elections set for the fall, the taxpayer must continue to pay through the nose for the foreseeable future.

One blow for common sense, however, was landed in the last session. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, having failed last year to persuade the Legislature that New Orleans’ six juvenile judges are two too many, finally prevailed. The reduction will not cause incumbents any inconvenience, however, for Lawrence Lagarde has reached mandatory retirement age, while Yolanda King was probably never going to take the bench again anyway. The state Supreme Court sidelined King after she was indicted for lying about her domicile when she qualified to run. Eliminating two judgeships will free up several hundred thousand dollars a year for more pressing needs, Landrieu has said.

There is no shortage of more pressing needs, and abolishing two judgeships is no more than a step in the right direction. According to studies commissioned by the state Supreme Court and by BGR, New Orleans needs just one juvenile judge.

The only nay vote when a Senate committee voted to cut juvenile judges came from Murray, who seems more and more an odd choice to lead a reappraisal of the judicial system. The legislature does not contain a stauncher proponent of the status quo.

The merger of Traffic and Municipal courts will go ahead, so that taxpayers will be required to support one clerk and one judicial administrator instead of two. But the bill providing for the merger now involves no inconvenience for Traffic and Municipal court judges, who have a great racket going. They are paid well over $100,000 a year, have plenty of time to run private practices on the side and get 30 vacation days.

In its original form, the bill would have left two of them out in the cold “upon expiration of terms” this year, but now all eight will remain in place. They also all will be included in the 14-member task force that is supposed to come up with a “recommendation related to the reduction in judges through attrition and to establish methods and procedures to effectuate the consolidation.”

A logical guess would be that their recommendation would be for attrition delayed until they are safely collecting their pensions. Let’s not confuse the issue by trying to bring the public interest into it. That went out the window when legislators plumped for a task force, which almost always means reform is doomed.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.