Failed bid to cut judgeships fires up reform effort

A courthouse rising off Imperial Drive in Bayou St. John has four courtrooms — one for each of the juvenile judgeships that Mayor Mitch Landrieu thought would survive this year’s legislative session.

A bill he pushed reducing the number of juvenile judges from six to four was largely considered a sure bet. It was designed as an easy first pill to swallow in a coming, more comprehensive, reshaping of the city’s beleaguered criminal justice system.

But it failed.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Helena Moreno, sailed through the House but died in a Senate Committee this week. When the new juvenile justice complex opens next year, six judges will need to squeeze into four courtrooms.

Opponents of the law said a delay gives the Legislature time to get it right; supporters described it as more stalling in the years-long fight to consolidate the city’s bloated court system. One 2011 analysis estimated that duplicative judgeships cost the taxpayers as much as $12 million a year.

“I think this reminds us that there are powerful advocates for the status quo in New Orleans and they have powerful connections in Baton Rouge,” said Michael Cowan, a Loyola University theology professor who leads a civic advocacy group called Common Good, which has pushed for judicial reform. “The politics of getting this done are going to be hard. But it’s just going to turn up the fire for us.”

Senators Ed Murray and Dan Claitor advocated against the bill. Both sit on a judicial commission currently analyzing the number of judges across the state, and they asked lawmakers to wait for their report before instituting sweeping change. Neither senator responded to requests for comment Friday, but said shortly after the bill’s defeat that their report might make similar recommendations.

As the city recovered from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, civic groups saw an opening to root out redundant bureaucracy long endemic in New Orleans: two sheriff’s offices merged, seven assessors were replaced by a single office and various minor offices were taken over by the civil court clerk.

That 2006 mandate also included the more contentious plan to consolidate Orleans Parish civil, criminal and juvenile courts. Some proponents believed that would, eventually, lead to the elimination of extraneous judgeships.

In the battle that has simmered ever since, the city has rid itself of not one single seat on any bench. Indeed, lawmakers last year backtracked on a proposal to merge just the administration of the criminal, civil and juvenile courts.

New Orleans’ court system is the most tangled in the state, with 46 judges spread across six courts: juvenile, criminal, civil, city, traffic, and municipal. It is plagued by accusations of inefficiency, courtrooms closed by lunchtime and waste.

A 2010 analysis by the state Supreme Court found that Orleans Parish courts have an overabundance of judges: seven civil judges could do what the 14 currently on the bench achieve, eight criminal court judges could replace the current 12, and the juvenile bench could be trimmed from six, all the way to one.

Judges, and others against consolidation, have argued that the numbers don’t account for the complex nature of litigation in New Orleans, and doubt the long-term cost savings outweighs the short-term financial investment in restructuring the court system.

Chief Juvenile Judge Ernestine Gray on Friday said that work is required of juvenile judges outside of the courtroom, like monitoring kids on probation and checking in on families after hours.

“In New Orleans, we talk about the high rate of juvenile crime,” she said. “If there is a lot of juvenile crime, it seems like you’d need more judges.”

She said that she would not be against reducing the number of judges if the process seemed more transparent, and after another thorough study of workload.

Juvenile court is considered by some to be the most bloated of all, with six judges doing the work that the Supreme Court analysis concluded could be done by one jurist.

“The data is really clear, we only need just over one judge,” said Ryan Berni, a spokesman for the mayor.

The mayor considered the bill he pushed — leaving four judgeships — as a compromise. The mayor has said he would eventually like to whittle the number of juvenile judges down to three.

In pushing for it, they agreed to shelve a consolidation of the city’s traffic and municipal court for this session, Berni said.

The New Orleans Office of Inspector General has suggested that the city’s municipal and traffic courts, now with four judges each, should merge, and elect just one judge to oversee the entire operation. That, alone, would save millions, Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux said. A report commissioned by the city seconded that opinion; even the chief administrative judge at traffic court agreed that the two courts could function as one.

The city saw the elimination of two seats on the juvenile bench as a baby step — one that they said would redirect $827,000 a year from judicial salaries, benefits and support staff to youth outreach services.

Cowan said he fears the juvenile bill’s defeat indicates that the next fight, consolidating the traffic and municipal courts, will be even harder than his group expected. They plan to wage a campaign this summer, months before he hopes it heads to the Legislature.

“It’s not a coincidence that everywhere you look, we have more judges than we need, there’s a culture to it,” Cowan said. “The resistance is still there.”