Judge vacating seat held for decades
It’s been three years since Magistrate Court in Orleans Parish played host to a criminal trial or a guilty plea, following a state Supreme Court ruling that barred the practice.
That decision left the denizens of the first-floor courtroom at Criminal District Court with a limited set of tasks: signing warrants, setting initial bonds for criminal defendants and ruling on probable cause for arrests.
Yet despite the diminished role and a shrinking caseload, the stakes could be high in the Oct. 19 race to fill the Magistrate Court seat being vacated by Judge Gerard Hansen after nearly four decades on the bench.
Which of the three candidates wins could affect everything from how fast arrestees get released from jail to how many cells are needed at the jail.
Former Magistrate Commissioner Harry Cantrell, local defense lawyer Morris Reed and former public defender Mark Vicknair are each hoping to assume the seat, which pays about $130,000 a year.
That’s about $55,000 more than the salary of each of the four appointed magistrate commissioners who work under the judge, mostly taking over courtroom duties for afternoon and evening sessions.
Among the biggest issues in the race is how the next magistrate judge will view the year-old “pre-trial services” program run by the Vera Institute of Justice.
The program — reviled by bail bondsmen and criticized as too costly by some Criminal Court judges who early this year moved to discontinue it — is intended to give the court’s judges and commissioners a more comprehensive assessment of a defendant’s risk of committing a new crime or failing to show up in court if he is allowed to go free while awaiting trial.
The basic idea is low-risk, nonviolent offenders shouldn’t be locked away in jail for lack of money to post bond.
The fate of the pre-trial release program may affect how big a jail Sheriff Marlin Gusman operates and how much the city must pay to house inmates there.
The program’s projected success in helping to reduce the inmate population has been a key factor in federal court hearings this year over the nature and cost of jail reforms to be mandated under a consent decree.
Each of the three candidates claims to support the idea of pre-trial services, though not necessarily the Vera program, which costs the city nearly $500,000 a year.
Cantrell was known as the stiffest bond-setter at Magistrate Court while he sat as an appointed commissioner for 14 years before stepping down recently to run for the judgeship.
He averaged more than $16,000 per bond, according to one analysis. Cantrell declined to comment on the cost of the Vera program, or whether he followed Vera’s system for ranking the risk of letting an inmate stay out of jail.
“I take it into consideration, certainly. I just don’t use one tool. I get a recommendation from the state, from the Public Defender’s office,” Cantrell said. “The more information we get, the better we are equipped to make the best decision we can regarding bonds.”
Vicknair, 44, who served for eight years as a public defender in Magistrate Court, is far more vigorous in his support of the pre-trial program, and even possibly pushing to expand it.
He downplayed criticism that arose this year after it was learned that the program gave a low-risk score to Akein Scott, who was later accused of being one of two gunmen who sprayed bullets into a second-line parade on Mother’s Day, injuring 20 people.
“I think for the people who are having a problem with the pre-trial services program, it’s because of the incident that occurred on Mother’s Day,” he said. “Pre-trial services are much better than what was in place in the past. It’s actually saving the city money by giving (low bonds or releases) to people who don’t necessarily belong in jail.”
Reed also favors the new program, although he said the cost could “probably be tightened up a bit.”
“It’s much needed to give some relief to an overcrowded jail,” he said. “Obviously we’re incarcerating too many people.”
Reed, 64, a former New Orleans police officer, prosecutor and Criminal Court judge who ran a losing race for district attorney in the 1990s, is the most outspoken advocate for change at Magistrate Court among the three candidates.
Reed said he favors state legislation to reinstate the court’s ability to conduct misdemeanor and even felony trials — or alternatively, to get rid of two of the four commissioner posts.
As it stands, he said, four commissioners and one magistrate judge are far too many.
“Within an hour a magistrate commissioner can complete his duties, go fish or golf or teach,” he said. “The only thing they’re doing is setting bonds.
'Then they can go home. If they’re being honest with the public, they’d admit to the fact they don’t have enough work for five people.”
A report last month by the Bureau of Governmental Research found that Criminal Court in Orleans Parish has about twice the number of judges it needs.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s move to ship more than 1,000 misdemeanor cases each year from Criminal Court to Municipal Court has added fodder for critics who say there are too many judges at Tulane and Broad with too little to do.
If the powers of their jobs don’t increase, Reed said, he’d favor scrapping two commissioners and using the money to fund more probation officers and a return of drug court programs to Magistrate Court.
Cantrell, who also says he wants to introduce mental health and drug programs to Magistrate Court, takes issue with claims that the commissioners don’t have enough to do, or that their number should be cut. But that’s a decision for the Legislature, he said, to be made following a study that is slated to come out in February.
“We operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Cantrell said. “All of the commissioners have a robust docket. We have a lot of work.”
Each commissioner must work one day a week and one weekend a month, staying on call to sign warrants at all hours. Eliminating some commissioners would “place a hardship,” Cantrell said at a recent forum.
Vicknair took a seat on the fence. “The determination that needs to be made is whether in fact we need four commissioners,” he said. “Can we do with less? Maybe, maybe not.”
Vicknair most recently worked as a victims’ advocate on domestic violence cases for a Catholic Charities program and said he wants to reinstate a domestic violence court — a move that Cantrell said he also favors.
At the top of his platform, Vicknair advocates modernizing the warrant system by allowing the judge and commissioners to sign them electronically, rather than requiring cops to get a signature in person.
“That’s quite a bit of time shuffling and shuttling a piece of paper around. You can save tens of thousands of man hours to the NOPD,” Vicknair said. The idea has the support of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, he said. The biggest fix needed is not to the court itself, but “probably just the computer system,” he said.
Cantrell said he sees little that needs changing.
“I think we have one of the best systems in the United States,” he said.
According to state campaign filings, Cantrell had raised $500 as of Sept. 9 while lending his campaign $80,000 of his own money and spending about $45,000, Reed had raised $350 and loaned his campaign $2,000, while spending $2,225. Vicknair had raised $8,868, loaned his campaign $100,000 and spent $28,560.