Committee holds hearing over reducing New Orleans judgeships

A top New Orleans official bickered Wednesday with the chairman of a state Supreme Court commission over how much city taxpayers would save if the number of judges were reduced.

“Given the city’s fiscal challenges, it is imperative that we address the costs,” said Andy Kopplin, first deputy mayor of New Orleans, in arguing for fewer judges.

“It’d be a benefit for the state, but not for the city,” said state Sen. Ed Murray, because district judges are paid by the state.

The New Orleans Democrat chairs the Supreme Court’s Committee on House Concurrent Resolution 143, which was appointed to consider whether to reduce the number of judges.

The committee is charged with making recommendations to the Louisiana Legislature by Feb. 15. The regular session begins March 10.

“It is not our intention to sacrifice justice on the altar of efficiency,” said state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge and a member of the committee. “It’s about achieving the appropriate numbers and efficiencies.”

Kopplin and the city’s Inspector General’s Office say those efficiencies require fewer judges.

A phalanx of judges, lawyers and court personnel — mostly from New Orleans — rallied against that proposition during the five-hour public hearing held in the State Capitol.

The only members of the public who testified at the first, and likely only, public hearing on the matter were four litigants who complained that too few judges were hearing divorce cases and that has led to unnecessary delays and hardships.

Kopplin said, “Determining the precise number of judges may be complex to determine, but determining that we have too many in New Orleans is quite simple. It’s mathematic: We have far fewer cases being filed in our courts.”

He pointed to three reports released by different organizations since 2007 that reached the same conclusion: New Orleans has too many judgeships and its system of separate court systems that impacts the costs.

Kopplin said the figures for 2011 showed seven court systems in New Orleans with 45 judges, 401 staffers and a total cost $39.2 million.

The average annual cost was $571,485 per judge.

“The city doesn’t pay that $571,000 you reference,” Murray said. He said he asked the question because the widely cited figure infers that New Orleans taxpayers, alone, pick up the tab.

The state pays judicial salaries in most cases.

But many clerks of court and deputies for security and the amount of space necessary are paid locally.

City taxpayers, for instance, pay for the operation of the buildings used by the courts, Kopplin said.

“It’d be great for the elevators to work,” Murray replied.

Chief Judge Camille Buras, of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, said her statistics show that in 2012 the court handled 188 jury trials in 367 days.

That number doesn’t include 37,621 pretrial hearings on motions or the post-conviction docket or meetings with lawyers, she said.

Arthur Morrell, clerk of Criminal District of Orleans Parish, used the famous case of Antoinette Frank as his example.

The New Orleans police officer was sentenced to death in 1995 after being convicted in the murder of a fellow officer and two children during a robbery.

Morrell said the trial was listed as a single case in the workload calculations. The case required 343 hearings over a year.

“People look at the numbers, but they don’t understand what’s involved,” Morrell said.

New Orleans Inspector General E.R. Quatrevaux said the New Orleans Traffic Court is primarily administrative and could be handled by staff.

Only 34 trials were held over a six-year period, he said.

“The judges are just window dressing,” Quatrevaux said, adding that most of the $5.7 million that goes to run the Traffic Court should go into city’s treasury.

Since 2002 when Traffic Court filings peaked at 289,457, the number of tickets decreased to 155,329 in 2012.

“Send this court to the gallows,” Quatrevaux said.

Not so fast, countered Robert E. Jones III, the court’s chief administrative judge.

He said Quatrevaux’s numbers are off.

True, only 34 trials were counted, but that was because of antiquated case management programs only counted the trials that ended in acquittal.

In fact there were hundreds of trials held, Jones said.

And the court cost about $3.6 million to operate, but generated about $12 million for the city, he said.

“That makes us probably the most efficient court in the state,” Jones said.

Kevin Mikesell, of Diamond Head, Miss., said because only two judges in St. Tammany Parish’s 22nd Judicial District Court handle family cases, his divorce involved the input of a lot of hearing officers, social workers, parental advisors, and others, all paid for by litigants.

“Everything seems to be outsourced to those individuals,” Mikesell said. “Why not have more judges hearing cases?”