Our Views: New fight over judges

Mayor Mitch Landrieu has earned the thanks of the taxpayers of New Orleans in the cause of trimming court expenses.

That has meant taking on the entrenched political power of judges, but we believe that Landrieu and legislators are right to tackle those difficult struggles.

A bench that is overjudged is also overstaffed. The city pays those costs, and it is a legitimate concern for taxpayers.

The city is now in court, hoping that a new state law will block an election for the seat held by indicted Judge Yolanda King. She sits — or sat, depending on the disposition of the mayor’s lawsuit — on Juvenile Court, which has seen a sizeable decline in its caseload.

In the 2014 Legislature, Landrieu championed a bill to gradually cut the size of the court. Signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal in early June, the law eliminates two of the six Juvenile Court judgeships when they become vacant.

One of them will disappear at the end of the year with the retirement of Judge Lawrence Lagarde Jr. The law doesn’t specify which other section of court faces the same fate. Instead, it says another judgeship will dissolve one day after “becoming vacant by (a judge’s) death, resignation, retirement, disqualification from exercising any judicial function pursuant to order of the Louisiana Supreme Court, or removal during the term of office.”

In May, the Louisiana Supreme Court deemed King “disqualified from exercising any judicial function during the pendency of further proceedings” in her criminal case.

If the courts rule with Landrieu, although that is in doubt, the goals of the new law will be achieved a bit early. King is disputing the prosecution; she is accused of lying about her New Orleans residency when she ran for election last year. In state district court in Baton Rouge, Landrieu lost the first round of his bid to stop an election this year; city lawyers said an urgent appeal is to be made to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal. Qualifying for that race opens Wednesday and the election is Nov. 4.

So other judges will eventually tell us whether King’s seat is on the chopping block pursuant to the law.

Whether or not that occurs, the new Landrieu-backed law will achieve a savings to the city’s coffers at a time when every dollar is needed for vital services.

Judges are essential elements of the court system. But studies by the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research and other groups have focused on the significant disparity between caseloads and judicial positions in parts of the state.

This isn’t only a New Orleans problem. A major BGR study found that the overjudged bench is a weight in many jurisdictions around the state. No one wants to see the courts clogged by cuts in judicial positions, but getting it right is important to the taxpayers’ interests.

We look forward to a comprehensive restructuring, one day, that will right-size the judiciary in Louisiana.