Report: Cut number of judges

Some $14 million could be saved annually by ridding New Orleans courts of more than half their judges, a reduction supported by a formula for estimating workloads for jurists across the state, according to a report released Tuesday by the Bureau of Governmental Research.

With the 33-page report, the government watchdog aims to shine a public spotlight on an issue being studied by a state commission led by Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans.

A report by the state’s Judicial Council on Louisiana’s 97 district and city courts is due in February. But BGR president Janet Howard says the council has lagged on another report that was due last year on the state’s appellate courts. If the Legislature fails to shrink the number of judges in the city before election season next fall, she said, much of the potential cost savings would be lost for six years.

“What we’re asking is that they follow through with the work that’s needed to reach a definitive conclusion, and they do so in time to deal with the problem before the November 2014 election,” Howard said. “If we don’t, we’re stuck.”

One local judge, however, says the report takes a cookie-cutter stab at a parish with the most jury trials in the state and a heavy load of complex civil cases.

At stake is a push that began after Hurricane Katrina to “right-size” the court system in Orleans Parish. The move has run into stiff political headwinds, even amid the consolidation of other government functions in the city, such as the mergers of seven different assessors’ offices and the civil and criminal sheriff’s offices.

State law in 2006 mandated a consolidation of civil, criminal and juvenile courts in New Orleans. But the Legislature in 2008 postponed the change until 2014, then scrapped it altogether last year.

This year, the political strength of the judiciary was on display as Mayor Mitch Landrieu failed to win support to shrink juvenile court from six judges to four. Murray argued against the reduction, urging a Senate committee to wait for the commission’s report.

Under a state resolution, the Judicial Council must issue annual reports giving the results of a workload formula for the courts, with a point system for the various types of cases that judges handle. Under that formula, the New Orleans court system is extremely bloated, according to the BGR report, which echoes the conclusions of earlier reports by New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office and a consultant for the city.

The new report claims that the criminal and civil district courts in Orleans Parish each have more than twice the number of judges they need. The combined excess of the city’s seven courts — a surplus of 125 percent — tops the 10 largest district courts in Louisiana. Reduced caseloads in the district courts, as well as in Juvenile Court, only have made the surplus of judges more obvious, the report suggests.

For instance, juvenile court filings have dropped from about 9,000 to about 1,700 over two decades. According to the report, Juvenile Court is the most severely overstaffed in the city. Its six judges are five too many, the report claims. Traffic Court filings have declined by nearly half in about a decade, with similarly large declines in the two city courts.

Criminal District Court case loads also have been on the decline, with Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office shifting of thousands of low-level crimes to Municipal Court in recent years.

The report found that only Municipal Court, with four judges, stands at the right number. All told, judges in the city should number about 20, not the 45 that currently sit on the bench. Fewer judges would also mean fewer staffing needs in the various courthouses.

According to the report, losing a single criminal court judge, for instance, would result in $715,242 in savings. More than half of that is paid by the city, with the rest from the state.

“The BGR report confirms again what we already know: We have too many judges in New Orleans,” Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin said in a statement Tuesday. “The City’s court system as it stands is disjointed, expensive, lacks coordination and delivers too few results.”

Kopplin lamented the failure of legislation to shrink the juvenile court and said the commission should meet in public to “bring more transparency to their work as the results will be of critical importance to city taxpayers,” Kopplin said.

The report acknowledges that the estimates don’t take into account that some felony cases or civil lawsuits are more complex and demand more of a judge’s time.

Officials in Orleans Parish civil cases argue that the formula fails to credit class-action, asbestos and other complex cases that can drag on for years.

“It doesn’t take into account extraneous factors that the district courts have” in New Orleans, said Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese, who pointed to a litany of class-action, asbestos and maritime cases on the docket. “We deal with those cases on a regular basis. The complexity of cases has not relented. The report is kind of formulaic.”

Reducing the number of judges to the extent suggested in the report, Reese said, could extend those cases by years.

However, the report said that when researchers asked for the number of those complex, multi-plaintiff cases, “the court responded that it did not have the data.”

The watchdog group recommends deeper review by the Judicial Council, including site visits, by February, with regular assessments in the future.

Criminal District Court Chief Judge Camille Buras did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the report.

Valerie Willard, spokeswoman for the state Supreme Court, said the formula was established to assess when to add judges, not subtract them.

“We just don’t have a formula at this point yet for reduction,” Willard said. “It’s not like the issue is lost on the court. The Legislature and the court have been in regular conversation, and assessing and watching.”

Late Tuesday, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson issued a statement saying that Murray’s committee would likely want to review the BGR’s report.

“However, ultimately, the state legislature is tasked with the creation and funding of judgeships which is why the Supreme Court will be guided by the work of the 143 Committee,” her statement said in part. “We believe it is important to allow the 143 Committee to finish its work, and we look forward to reviewing the culmination of the Committee’s efforts and its recommendations.”

Murray said the commission is still receiving data from the courts statewide, but is looking into what formula to use — and place into law — to slash judgeships.

“There is no requirement in law to look at reducing the number of judges, and in fact we’ve been looking across the country to determine what other states have done. We have not found a formula that any state has used,” he said.

Quatrevaux, whose 2011 report recommended the consolidation of the Municipal and Traffic courts, said the numbers come down to dollars and cents in a city with big infrastructure needs and other obligations.

“If you want to pay for a consent decree” governing police or jail reforms, for instance, “you need to can some judges. You can’t have it both ways,” Quatrevaux said. “If we don’t get better at managing money and reducing unnecessary costs, we’ll end up like Detroit.”

Detroit recently filed for municipal bankruptcy.

Michael Cowan, who heads the New Orleans Crime Coalition, said the plan is to begin pressing state lawmakers for reductions on the bench in the fall.

“All of the studies plainly point in the same direction” — slicing the number of judges in the city, Cowan said. “These three studies can’t be so far off that no reductions are called for. The question is how, and where.”

According to the BGR study, the formula points to reducing the number of civil court judges from 14 to 7; criminal court judges from 13 to 7; traffic court judges from four to one; and shedding one city court judge.

In the meantime, nine candidates are in the running to fill an open seat in Traffic Court in the upcoming Oct. 19 election.