City Court judges’ frequent travel, absences adding up
Five Baton Rouge City Court judges have collectively taken 101 publicly funded trips for seminars and conferences since 2007, often staying at plush resorts in locations such as Hawaii, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
The total cost for the trips was $135,465 for the 51/2 -year period, according to The Advocate’s examination of city-parish travel reimbursements.
A review of the judges’ leave documents also shows the combination of business travel, paid vacation and unlimited sick days sometimes took judges away from the bench for months each year.
The judges’ absences since Jan. 1, 2007, when they began their current six-year terms, have cost a total of $424,577 — as much as $87,000 in one calendar year — to hire ad hoc, or substitute, judges to fill in while the City Court judges are away.
One judge, Yvette Alexander, was absent 82 and 84 days in 2010 and 2011, respectively, amounting to 16 work weeks or four months’ leave each year.
The judges, who responded individually via phone calls, said they were abiding by the city-parish’s travel rules and noted all leave was approved by the state Supreme Court.
“The value we get of it is that we are not an island,” Alexander said. “We learn from other jurisdictions and they learn from us. It gives us an opportunity to compare and see what’s going on. I’m able to assess judges and lawyers around the country.”
The trips taken by Alexander, who first took office in 1995, account for 37 percent of the trips by the City Court judges since 2007. Alexander traveled farther and more frequently than her peers, taking 37 trips since 2007 that cost a total of $52,704 , records show.
Of Alexander’s trips, 19 were out of state and eight were outside the continental U.S. The other 10 trips were within the state.
Since 2007, she’s visited Hawaii twice, Jamaica twice, Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, the Virgin Islands and the West Indies.
Her 2007 Jamaica trip lasted seven days, and her room at the Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort cost $488 a night.
On one Destin, Fla., trip, which cost the city-parish $2,951, she brought five people along , but upgraded her room at her own expense to house the additional people.
City Court has an annual travel-and-special expenses budget of $49,000, split among the five judges for $9,800 each per year.
From 2007 to 2011, Alexander spent an average of $9,500 per year in travel, taking about seven trips per year. She exceeded the individual travel budget in 2011, spending $10,135.
Alexander is the chairwoman of the National Bar Association’s judicial council, which requires her involvement in seminars across the country, she said.
“It’s an honor and I’m very proud. It brings prestige for Baton Rouge and Baton Rouge City Court,” she said. “In order to be chair, you can’t walk up and say, ‘Look, I’m going to chair.’ You have to be working hard for it.”
As chair of the organization, Alexander said, she feels obligated to travel to four board meetings per year.
Alexander traveled to St. Maarten in January for the National Bar Association for a five-day trip costing $1,418. In the coming weeks, she will travel to Las Vegas for another conference for the organization, she said.
Alexander’s peers rarely spent more than $5,000 per year on travel, with the exception of Judge Alex “Brick” Wall, who spent an average of $6,586 per year on travel.
The judges said they travel to meet their annual requirement of 12.5 hours of continuing legal education and to participate in various organizations.
Many of the out-of-state seminars and conferences were held in tourist destinations that boast luxurious hotels and opportunities for a variety of daily activities and evening entertainment.
Classes and seminars often ended by lunchtime so those attending could spend their afternoons and evenings enjoying the resorts’ amenities.
The judges regularly took their spouses or other family members to enjoy the trips. Guests’ expenses were paid for personally by the judges.
In 2007, Wall attended the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association’s Ski and Continuing Legal Education Seminar in Jackson Hole, Wyo., spending $2,800 of public funds.
Seminars ended by 12:15 p.m. every day for a “FREE AFTERNOON FOR SKIING AND FUN,” according to the seminar brochure.
Judges regularly attended an annual summer school seminar in Destin at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, which, according to travel documents, offered the judges “complimentary unlimited health club access for adults and 4-hour bicycle rental daily for two. Also included is 1-hour of boogie board and 1-hour of tennis courts each day per unit.”
The Destin trips taken by judges ranged between $1,000 and $3,500 per trip, records show.
Another popular annual event for the judges was a Bench Bar Conference held at resorts on the Alabama Gulf Coast. The annual conference agendas featured tennis, golf and volley ball tournaments and late-night shuttles to the FloraBama Lounge, a beach bar on the Alabama-Florida state line.
A 2008 email inviting judges to the Gulf Coast conference reads: “In addition to the 9.0 hours of (Continuing Legal Education) offered, there are endless opportunities to relax with friends and colleagues, meet new members of the bar association and the judiciary and even improve your athletic skills!”
Judges are required by state law to receive 12.5 hours of Continuing Legal Education every year. Classes are offered locally by the Baton Rouge Bar Association.
City Court judges are paid a salary of $136,550 per year — of which $93,290 comes from the city-parish budget and the remainder from the state.
By case volume, Baton Rouge City Court is the largest in the state, with more than 400,000 cases filed in 2011, according to the Supreme Court of Louisiana’s 2011 annual report.
City Court judges hear civil claims, including personal injury, property damage, contract and landlord-tenant cases up to $35,000 and small-claims cases of $3,000 or less. City Court also handles misdemeanor cases with penalties not exceeding $1,000.
About half of the City Court’s $9.1 million budget comes from a city-parish general fund allocation and the rest from self-generated fees, fines and court costs.
The five City Court judges are elected to six-year terms; all five judges are up for re-election this November.
The judges all stressed that they were staying within their allocated travel budget and complying with city-parish finance rules.
Judge Laura Davis, with the second-highest number of trips, took 24 trips costing a total of $24,000, far below the 37 trips Alexander logged. Wall took fewer trips than Davis, but his 20 trips totaled $36,000.
Davis said she’s mindful her trips are funded with public money, “which is why I never miss a minute of educational programs when at the conferences.”
“I take it very seriously,” she said. “We’re careful not to abuse it.”
Wall said he tries to take trips where he can learn something that will directly benefit the court.
“I know I’ve been to Las Vegas a couple times,” he said. “They specifically deal with DWIs and had some excellent seminars.”
Judge Kelli Temple took office in 2009, replacing now state District Judge Trudy White, and since then has taken 10 trips costing a total of $17,800.
Judge Suzan Ponder, who took the bench in 1993, took significantly fewer trips than her colleagues — typically one per year and never any farther than Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Her 10 trips cost a total of $5,400.
“Between the (continuing legal education) that I do and going to the Bench Bar Conference, I get all the CLE credits that I need,” Ponder said. “That meets my travel needs.”
City Court judges also get 30 days of paid vacation as well as unlimited sick days. Unused vacation days roll over, and when judges leave the bench, the city-parish pays them for unused days.
When Judge White left City Court in 2009, she received $36,227 for 607 hours of unused leave, according to the city-parish finance department.
Trips taken for seminars and conferences do not count against paid time off, meaning judges are sometimes out of the office for multiple months of the year for a combination of vacation, sick leave and conference and business trips.
In 2010, Alexander took 37 sick days, 25 days of vacation and 22 days for business travel — meaning she was out an equivalent of almost 17 business weeks, according to City Court leave forms. Last year, she was out a total of 82 days: 30 sick, 21 vacation and 31 for business travel.
“I can’t explain that except that I was sick,” she said. “We only take sick leave when we’re sick. The Supreme Court approves our sick leave.”
Since 2007, Alexander has missed at least 58 days, or almost 12 weeks, per year.
Alexander has already been away from the bench at least 50 days so far this year.
The leave forms do not account for weekend days judges are expected to work. Judges are required to work one Saturday every five weeks as a duty judge for bond reductions and probable-cause hearings.
Wall was away from the bench 54 days in 2011 — or almost 11 weeks — for sick, vacation and business travel.
The fewest number of days Wall was away from the bench in any one of the past five years was in 2009, with 42 days off.
“We don’t know what days we’re going to be sick or not sick,” Wall said. “If I took 50 days off, it was a combination of vacation, sick days and administrative conferences. But we’re here the vast majority of the time.”
Ponder took fewer days away from the bench than the other judges, with an average of about 23 days per year, mostly for vacation and sick leave.
Davis had the fewest sick leave days, with no more than two sick days in any year.
Temple said that as long as the judges met the parameters set for leave by the state Supreme Court and the city-parish, then the judges’ leave is justified.
Temple was away from the bench 30 days last year and 45 in 2010, which was her first full year as judge.
“I’m a wife, a mother, and I’m myself, so as it relates to sick leave then sometimes there are instances we need to take off,” she said. Temple had 40 sick days in the two-year period. “The public is served even if there is a reason we’re not here on that day,” she said.
When judges are away, the City Court always pays ad hoc judges to fill in for them.
Since 2007, City Court has spent between $56,624 and $87,033 per year for the substitute judges.
City Court has exceeded its line-item budget for ad hoc judges and other contracted temporary employees since 2007 by at least $24,000 every year, records show.
But City Court Administrator Lon Norris said the department stays within its overall budget every year because it can cover the costs of ad hoc employees with its savings from other areas, like not filling employee vacancies.
Baton Rouge City Court judges have been scrutinized in the past for their travel.
The Advocate, in 1998, reviewed the judges’ travel and found that over a 26-month period, Alexander logged more travel than her peers, with more than $16,000 worth of expenses.
She came under fire again in 2002 when the Metro Council tried to cap foreign travel in response to some Caribbean trips and a trip to Italy taken by Alexander. The trip to Italy cost the city-parish about $800.
“I have broken no rules and I continue to do my job,” Alexander said.
“The Supreme Court must approve everything we do. I’m following the rules and regulations and I do a great job on the bench.”