Our Views: Cut judges for savings

There’s an old rule about hunting where the ducks are. In the case of saving the taxpayers’ money, it may be courthouses where savings are to be found.

While much attention has been focused on the New Orleans court system, a new report from the Bureau of Governmental Research suggests that considerable savings can be found with a hard look at the staffing and workload of courts across Louisiana.

The BGR report on “rightsizing the courts” ought to be acted upon by state lawmakers next year.

Using a formula for judicial workloads developed by the state Judicial Council, an oversight body, BGR investigators found “compelling data that suggest numerous courts have too many judges.”

While the overstaffing of judges was 24 percent outside New Orleans, that big number was eclipsed by the issue of Orleans courts.

“The parish’s seven courts have 45 judges but need only 20, according to the formula’s estimates, and six of the courts have more than twice the number of judges they need,” the BGR report said.

It also noted other metrics that might be applied, including the declining filings in some Orleans courts.

While judges might feel a bit embattled by this report, we note that BGR has rightly emphasized that this is a statistical approach.

The Judicial Council’s own formula is only a first cut at estimating whether a jurisdiction needs new judges, or to reduce its numbers on the bench. More extensive research might be needed in a court system to rightsize the judiciary.

Every court, though, will come up with rationalizations for its robes.

But the main point stands up well: Double in Orleans, a fourth more than necessary elsewhere, suggests that a hunter interested in saving the taxpayers’ money can find plenty of ducks in the water.

How hard is it to shoot ducks in the water? The problem is not really statistical, but political.

For one thing, a judge is like the biggest duck in the pond, surrounded by smaller ducks — the staff and clerks and other parts of the flock. Everyone in the flock, though, eats. It’s not just the cost of the judges but their staffs that is at issue.

For another thing, the Louisiana Constitution is clear that an elected official can’t be cut from the payroll during a term in office. So if judges aren’t reduced before the November 2014 election, “we’re stuck,” BGR President Janet Howard said.

Like some other post-Hurricane Katrina reforms, reducing judicial overhead in New Orleans has been a hard political issue. Despite reform-minded reports from Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office and a consultant hired by the city, the political lift of eliminating judges has been tough.

But it is not only in New Orleans that the issue is difficult politically. On a smaller scale, tradition and influence also work to keep judges on the public payroll in other regions of the state.

The Legislature, as so often, has punted to a special committee, headed by Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans. We hope that the Murray committee and the Judicial Council act to make rightsizing the courts an obvious reform that the Legislature can adopt in the spring.