A parade of New Orleans judges took turns at a lectern Tuesday afternoon at the state Supreme Court to bash a good-government group’s recent pronouncement that the city’s court system has more than twice as many judges as it needs.
Last month’s report by the Bureau of Governmental Research was the latest in a long line of studies to suggest cutting back on the city’s judiciary, which numbers 45 judges spread across seven courts.
On Tuesday, the stream of judges called the report’s findings “flawed,” “faulty,” “short-sighted” and “drastic.” They urged a committee tasked with deciding how many of them should remain on the bench come next fall to proceed slowly and cautiously.
Bureau of Governmental Research President Janet Howard sat in the audience, occasionally shaking her head.
Tuesday’s discussion, before the state Supreme Court’s Judiciary Council, came at a potential crossroads for the city’s court system.
At stake is the drive to “right size” the city’s courts, a push that began after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but has since stalled.
The Legislature has only one more chance to shrink the judiciary before next fall’s election, when most of the judges will be locked in for another six years, at an estimated cost of $3.4 million each to taxpayers.
State Sen. Edwin Murray is leading a commission studying the number of necessary judges statewide, and he promises to report its recommendations by February, just in time for the legislative session.
The judges urged caution. But the Bureau of Governmental Research has called for action: If the reduction in judges is not done by next year’s deadline, it will have to wait another half-dozen years, the nonpartisan group said in its report.
Judges representing each of the city’s courts assured the Judicial Council, a 17-member board that serves as a research body for the Supreme Court, that they were not concerned for their own jobs, though all could be in jeopardy if the Legislature were to decide next year on significant trims. Rather, they said, they were worried for the public.
“To adopt the drastic measures of the BGR report would truly compromise public safety,” Criminal District Court Chief Judge Camille Buras said.
And the judges all criticized the method the Bureau of Governmental Research used to make its calculations.
The organization relied on a formula used for decades by the Judicial Council to decide when to add judges, not to subtract them.
That formula counts all cases as the same, regardless of how complex or time-consuming they may be.
Thus, a sweeping class action suit that lingers for years counts the same as a simple divorce. Ditto for a capital murder case and a burglary.
Buras pointed to some recent racketeering charges filed by District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, in which multiple alleged gang members are charged with dozens of felonies, including murders, in a single indictment. Those cases can cripple the court’s resources and linger for years, she said, but they count the same as a single drug possession charge.
Howard dismissed much of the criticism, which stretched on for more than an hour.
The Bureau of Governmental Research used the judiciary’s own formula, she said, and its report acknowledged the formula’s flaws and suggested that officials reach out to judges, lawyers and the like before making a final determination on how many judgeships should be eliminated.
Civil District Court Judge Piper Griffin said the judges themselves are best suited to decide how many judges are needed.
Murray assured them that he intends to factor their concerns into his commission’s report.
He told the Judicial Council that he has reached out to judges across the state to ask their advice on what factors to add to the formula he will use.
The commission has also contacted other states to see what systems exist to cut judgeships.
They have found no other state with a plan in place, he said.
“We are plowing new ground in Louisiana,” said Judge Robert Morrison, of the 21st Judicial District, who is helping lead the commission.
Local judges complained New Orleans is being picked on when various other courthouses across the state have too many judges.
They asked that the commission and the council tackle the problem all at once, statewide.
Most on the council seemed to agree. Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson invited the judges to explain in detail the intricacies of their case loads, and she agreed with the assertions made by many, calling them “life or death issues.”
Only one member of the council expressed skepticism toward the judges’ argument that the commission should take it slow.
Charles Beard, a Shreveport financial planner who sits on the council as a citizen member, questioned the logic of delaying a multimillion-dollar decision entirely if every single detail isn’t ironed out by next year.
He said the conversation has focused too much on the numbers of judgeships.
What concerns him, he said, is the taxpayer money it would cost to keep the status quo.
“This is worth doing and worth doing right,” he said. “Some things can be done right and in a hurry. I have to do that where I work.”