Stephanie Grace: Now’s the time to consider judge staffing

Deep inside the Bureau of Governmental Research’s new report on New Orleans judgeships is a fine suggestion: Shift the burden of proof from those who want to right-size the city’s plethora of courts to those prefer to keep things as is.

Rather than make reformers justify eliminating judgeships, why not ask the courts to demonstrate that they need to remain abundantly staffed?

The status quo would be a pretty tough sell, according to the policy group’s muscular analysis.

BGR argues that New Orleans has not just too many judges, but way too many. While 45 elected judges now preside over various courtrooms in various courthouses, the report, which echoes several prior studies, estimates that 20 could handle the job.

The numbers are as glaring or more for specific courts. Civil District Court has 14 judges but needs just 6.8, while Criminal District Court has 13 and needs 6.3, BGR says. First City Court has three judges to handle a workload of less than a single full-time jurist. Second City Court has one judge, but she does the work of a tenth of a full-timer, the report says.

And Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, which BGR calls the most overstaffed in the state, employs six judges when its caseload wouldn’t keep one fully busy.

All those apparently excess judges and their staffs are costing the public plenty. BGR says cutting one judgeship would save about $570,000 a year, or $3.4 million per judge per six-year term. Cutting the whole system down to what may be its appropriate size could save $14 million annually.

So why hasn’t this happened?

Chalk it up to turf-consciousness among powerful judges with friends in high places.

Also blame it on an initial miscalculation after Hurricane Katrina, when reforming New Orleans’ archaic political structure was the rage. Rather than explicitly tackle the number of judges, activists focused on merging civil, criminal and juvenile courts. But while they successfully consolidated seven assessor offices, two sheriff departments, parish-level levee authorities and some of the city’s minor judicial offices, the push to merge the courts broke down over the difficulty of combining finances and records. The Legislature mandated a merger in 2006, delayed it in 2008 and killed it altogether in 2012.

Last spring, in a sign of just how much the tide has turned, lawmakers killed a bill backed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to cut the number of juvenile court judges from six to four — still three more than BGR thinks it needs. Although the House passed the measure, state Sen. Ed Murray convinced the Judiciary C Committee to table it, arguing that state Supreme Court’s Judicial Council should finish studying the matter first.

BGR acknowledges that the judges might have a point when they say these stats don’t tell the whole story. New Orleans civil court judges say they see more than their share of time-and-resource-draining litigation, for example. But when BGR asked, the court couldn’t provide data on the numbers of class action, asbestos and other complex cases.

There’s a good bit of data to support a reduction, though. In Juvenile Court, filings have plunged 88 percent since 1984. That’s partly due to the district attorney’s decision to move child support cases to civil court, which seems to have picked up the extra caseload with little difficulty. Civil court has also seen a decline in overall filings.

Over in criminal court, judges no longer handle most misdemeanor offenses. In 2011, the district attorney started prosecuting those cases in municipal court, which BGR says is the one court that’s appropriately staffed.

Add to that the fact that the population served by all these judges has dropped by about 190,000 since 1980.

Those in the system have taken their sweet time evaluating whether and how it should be reconfigured, but BGR also argues for a new dose of urgency.

On top of budget difficulties, elections for many judgeships are looming in 2014. If nothing changes before then, nothing can change until the judges elected next year serve out their six-year terms. That would put us as at 15 years after Katrina shrunk the city and prompted locals to reevaluate the size of government.

Also on the horizon, the group could have added, is the potential construction of a new home for Civil District Court. The judges want their own complex and Landrieu wants them to join city government at the old Charity Hospital, but no matter how that fight turns out, it would surely make sense to build fewer courtrooms if possible.

So there’s the argument for taking a fresh look at the court system, putting everything on the table, and doing it quickly. Maybe there are compelling arguments against it, better than the ones than the largely self-serving ones we’ve been hearing for years.

So how about it, judges? You’re all lawyers. Make your best case.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.