Judge study may need more time

Concerns were raised at the State Capitol on Thursday that another six years will likely pass before Louisiana embarks on studying the politically thorny task of paring down judgeships.

The Louisiana Legislature asked the state Supreme Court in 2011 to prepare a report on needed changes to the existing judiciary structure. At issue is whether the numbers of appellate, district, parish and city court judges are supported by the caseloads especially in New Orleans, where the population dropped after Hurricane Katrina.

The report is due Feb. 15, but a study committee working with the Supreme Court indicated Thursday that it needs more information. Time is an issue because many judges will be elected to new six-year terms this fall. Sitting judges cannot be removed unless they are proven guilty of misconduct. Legislators therefore need to act in the session that starts in March or wait six years.

“These things are not easy to accomplish. This is not an excuse,” said Bob Morrison, a judge of the 21st Judicial District Court, during a meeting at the State Capitol.

What Morrison wants to do is hire a national firm to look at the issue. The National Center for State Courts would take a measured approach to determining how many judgeships are needed in Louisiana. The center would need at least a year to complete the work.

The Bureau of Governmental Research recently angered judges in New Orleans by suggesting the city’s court system is bloated in the wake of the population losses triggered by Hurricane Katrina. Forty-five judges preside over the city’s seven courts. BGR cited studies saying New Orleans could cut the judgeships by more than half.

Legislation to downsize New Orleans’ Juvenile Court died last year despite support from Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

The study committee that met Thursday at the State Capitol was created through a 2011 resolution. BGR sued the committee earlier this month for allegedly running afoul of the state’s “sunshine” laws. Among the complaints is that the committee has conducted too much of its work behind closed doors.

Most of Thursday’s meeting focused on a presentation by the National Center for State Courts, which detailed its complicated study methods.

Morrison said a consultant is needed. He apologized that delays in reaching a decision look likely.

“I feel very badly,” he said.

BGR’s president, Janet Howard, demanded to know why the National Center for State Courts would be hired now, so close to the session and the timeline for the report’s completion. “I think the public would like to have an answer,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, and it looks like there will be no decision in a timely fashion.”

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, said staff looked at other states and realized that those states contracted with the National Center for State Courts.

After the meeting, Murray said a report will be issued as required in the resolution. He declined to speculate on whether it will say that more study is needed.

“I’ve always been reluctant to predict what the Supreme Court will do,” he said.