Arthur Morrell says he’s shutting down courtroom because of budget woes; judge begs to differ

A long-running financial feud between the city and Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell led to a stalemate late Tuesday when Morrell sent out a press release announcing that one section of court will be shut down because city budget cuts have made it impossible for him to staff it.

But the judge in that courtroom says she plans to be on the bench first thing Wednesday to call her docket as usual, with or without his clerks.

“I’m surprised that they think they can shut Section A down,” said Criminal District Court Judge Laurie White. “I didn’t know Arthur Morrell could shut me down. I’m going to be in court tomorrow and I’m going to have a docket and I’m going to expect the clerk to do his job.”

Morrell sent his statement late Tuesday, saying that “budget cuts imposed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration forced the closure of Section A of Criminal District Court and no one knows when the court will be back in session.”

Each courtroom at Tulane and Broad is typically staffed with two deputy clerks, who compile the list of defendants to be brought over from jail, coordinate files and shuffle documents between the courtroom and the clerk’s office.

One of the two deputy clerks in White’s courtroom was fired recently, White said. The other left for a six-week medical leave.

Morrell said in his statement Tuesday that there are no back-up clerks “because the Landrieu administration refuses to release funds to hire additional deputy clerks and train them.”

Morrell’s office, along with nearly every other city agency, faced steep budget cuts in 2012. Morrell filed suit against the city last fall, claiming Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin broke the law by failing to adequately fund his office. He alleged that the city was withholding more than $100,000 from his $3.7 million budget, according to a report in October in the Times-Picayune.

Landrieu’s office noted late Tuesday that the City Charter gives Kopplin the authority to require the clerk’s office to operate within its budget. The city wrote that the clerk has a projected budget deficit of $241,000 in this fiscal year, and continues to try to hire more employees. The city also claims that Morrell has repeatedly refused to help develop a budgeting strategy.

“The Landrieu administration inherited a $100 million deficit when we took office in 2010. Since then, we have balanced the City’s budget with aggressive cost-cutting measures,” Kopplin wrote in a statement on Tuesday. “In contrast, the Clerk has overspent his budget each of the last three years. We cannot and will not allow that to continue. In a time where we’re trying to budget for critical public safety measures like consent decrees and additional police officers, the Clerk needs to be a better steward of the taxpayer dollars.”

He also noted that the clerk was the only city agency that refused to participate in the most recent ResultsNOLA report, an annual evaluation of city agencies’ use of taxpayer money.

During budget negotiations in the fall, the clerk’s office was staffed with nearly 90 employees. Morrell wrote in his Tuesday statement that there are currently 13 positions unfilled.

Morrell wrote that work in White’s courtroom ground to a halt Tuesday, and he is unsure when business might resume. But White says she held court on Tuesday, and the deputy clerk’s supervisor handled their work, as they always do when someone is out. She plans to do the same every day from now on.

Morrell disagrees: “They may not hold court tomorrow or the next day or who knows for how long?” he wrote.

Moreover, he wrote, another deputy clerk is scheduled to go on sick leave at the end of the month, which could close down other sections of court, all of which he blames on Landrieu and his administration.

White is unmoved.

She noted that Morrell has more than 80 employees. He can move them around or train them to do multiple jobs, she suggested. She finds it hard to imagine that he can’t find a single person to do the job to keep her court functioning.

“His job is to ensure the fair administration of justice,” she said. “He’s chosen not to do the job.”

She learned Tuesday morning that she wasn’t able to get inmates from the jail, because Morrell’s office is responsible for alerting the sheriff on who to bring over. Nor has the clerk printed her docket for Wednesday, she said.

By her own calendar, she’s expecting three defendants to show up for arraignments, five for trials, and list of experts, witnesses and doctors to to testify.

“We’ll see tomorrow,” she said when asked whether she can hold court without Morrell’s cooperation.

The judges and the clerk, both of which have complained of the budget cuts from the city, are scheduled to appear before the City Council Wednesday afternoon for an evaluation of their checkbooks.

White, meanwhile, said she might call Morrell to appear before her bench Wednesday to answer to his actions.

Morrell did not return a call seeking elaboration on his press release.