Senate committee revises N.O. court merger bill

Advocate Photo by MICHELLE MILLHOLLON -- State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, stops Tuesday to visit with state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans in the chambers of the State Senate. Show caption
Advocate Photo by MICHELLE MILLHOLLON -- State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, stops Tuesday to visit with state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans in the chambers of the State Senate.

In a matter of minutes, a state Senate committee on Tuesday cast aside the idea of consolidating the municipal and traffic courts in New Orleans.

House Bill 1206 called for a task force to come up with a plan to implement a merger of court operations in 2017.

The idea behind HB1206 was to consolidate operations of the courts so that fewer judges would be needed — six instead of eight. The jobs of a clerk and a judicial administrator could be eliminated and about $102,000 would be saved in 2017. Those savings would increase to about $204,000 per year after that.

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, asked why the bill included the idea of a task force if the language of the instrument consolidated the courts on its own. He then amended the legislation to remove the consolidation wording and leave only the task force.

Murray said the task force should have the flexibility to look at the situation and make recommendations as it sees fit.

The measure’s sponsor, state Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, said OK.

With Murray’s change, Leger said, the task force would take “a much broader approach. The task force will study more aspects.”

“It looks like a substitute bill,” joked committee Chairman Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa. But without objection, the Senate Committee on Judiciary A adopted the amendments and sent the rewritten bill to the full Senate for consideration.

After the vote, Leger said the purpose of the measure is to get all the parties to the table to negotiate some way of dealing with courts that don’t have enough cases to justify their costs.

“There was always going to have to be a bill next year to achieve consolidation,” Leger said. “So, I’m not worried.”

The amendments left proponents of the merger furious and represented another setback for good-government groups hoping to save tax dollars by trimming the bench. In February, a committee set up by the state Supreme Court punted on deciding whether to recommend cutting judgeships in New Orleans or elsewhere, concluding just as lawmakers did in Baton Rouge on Tuesday that more study is required.

Robert Jones, senior judge of the Traffic Court, took his seat at the table, praised Leger for trying to craft a bill, then blasted the idea.

Murray interrupted to ask if he had heard the amendment that the panel had just voted on. Jones stopped mid-sentence, said he supported the legislation as it now read and quickly left the table.

On the other hand, Janet Howard, president of the Bureau of Governmental Research, told Nevers that BGR withdrew its support of the amended legislation, then abruptly left the hearing room.

Later in the day, Howard said, “Basically, they took a bill that had a merger date set in 2017 and turned it into a study resolution — yet another study resolution. … New Orleans is the only place in the state that has both a municipal and a traffic court. It’s wasteful, and it constrains resources that could and should go to other needs in New Orleans — recreation, public safety, streets.”

The drive to merge the municipal and traffic courts was fueled by a New Orleans Office of Inspector General’s report in November 2011.

The legislation is part of a movement to reduce the number of judgeships in New Orleans from various courts.

A Bureau of Governmental Research report has said some $14 million could be saved annually by the elimination of more than half of New Orleans’ court judges.

The task force would have to come up with recommendations 30 days prior to the start of the 2015 legislative session.

The group would include the eight judges who serve on the two courts and four legislators as well as representatives from the New Orleans City Council and the Mayor’s Office.

The work would be done in conjunction with the Judicial Council of the Louisiana Supreme Court and the National Center for State Courts.

Mark Ballard, of the Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report.