Judge orders city to fund all the positions court clerk says he needs

The city’s Criminal District Court clerk has won the latest round in his long-running squabble with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration over funding for his office.

A Civil District Court judge ruled Tuesday that the city is legally required to give Clerk Arthur Morrell enough money to pay for all 90.5 employees he says he needs to run his office. He says he has lost 10 positions because of city cuts to his budget.

The battle began in 2012 when Landrieu, as part of across-the-board cuts for most city agencies, slashed Morrell’s $3.7 million budget by 3.8 percent, about $141,000.

Morrell sued. Civil District Court Judge Sidney Cates IV sided with the city, but the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal overturned that decision in October.

Meanwhile, the battle led to a standoff at the courthouse in July. A Morrell spokesman sent out a news release announcing that one section of criminal court would be shut down because Landrieu’s budget cuts made it impossible for the clerk’s office to staff it. However, the judge in that section called on Morrell to “do his job” and refused to close the court to wait for him to find a clerk. Morrell backtracked the next day.

A state law mandates the city to fully fund the clerk’s office, and the appeals court said the city could not slash positions without approval from the Legislature, which it did not have.

The Legislature this year passed a bill, sponsored by Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, that says: “The amounts to be appropriated and paid by the city of New Orleans for expenses, including salaries and maintenance of constitutional officers, their deputies, subordinates and employees, shall not be reduced by the city of New Orleans without the consent of the Legislature.”

The appeals court cited that law and sent the case back to Cates, who on Tuesday sided with Morrell.

Morrell’s attorney, Madro Bandaries, said the law is clear: The city is required to fully fund Morrell’s office, whether the judge or the city likes it or not.

“I hope that this resolves the issue,” Morrell said Tuesday.

That is unlikely to happen, however.

The administration promptly lashed back.

“This ruling is not in the best interest of New Orleans taxpayers, and the city plans to appeal,” Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said in a prepared statement. “City departments across the board have taken cuts so that we can balance the budget and invest in public safety and recreation. The clerk’s office should be no exception, especially since its staffing pattern is so inefficient.”

Morrell has 90.5 employees, mostly clerks and assistants who make less than $30,000 a year, according to documents provided by the office. Morrell is the highest-paid employee, at $120,000, followed by his chief deputy at $81,000. A handful of others make more than $60,000.

He staffs courtrooms by providing two clerks to each of the 12 judges, providing backup in case one is sick or on vacation. The city has questioned why Morrell does not staff each court with just one clerk, and have other employees cross-trained to fill in when needed.

The city said it has offered to help Morrell implement cost-saving methods, but that he has refused.