State committee studying number of judges needs to be more open, BGR says

Panel addressing number of judges too secret, BGR says

Describing the two-year-old process as “cloaked in secrecy,” a New Orleans watchdog group called Thursday for more transparency from a state commission that is assessing the number of judges needed in Louisiana.

The report is the latest salvo in a heated debate over whether the city has too many judges.

In 2011, the Legislature asked the state Supreme Court to examine the efficiency of the state’s 97 district and city courts, looking at each one’s caseload and the number of judges it has. The court’s Judicial Council is set to deliver a report in February, ahead of the 2014 legislative session.

Thursday’s report by the nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research pressed for an “open, fact-based process” from the commission, which is led by Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans.

BGR said it has asked for records related to the committee’s process, and its executives have asked to attend meetings, but such requests were denied.

A 2006 state law required a consolidation of civil, criminal and juvenile courts in New Orleans. Two years later, the Legislature postponed the change until 2014, and last year it scrapped it altogether.

The Judicial Council is required to compile annual reports detailing the results of a workload formula for the courts, assigning a point system for the various types of cases that judges oversee. In Orleans Parish, the council’s formula suggests a potential surplus of 25 judges in its seven courts.

Six of the courts have at least twice as many judges as the formula estimates are needed. But BGR President Janet Howard cautioned Thursday that additional study is necessary before taking action; the group’s report draws no conclusion on how many judges are necessary.

According to the BGR report, eliminating a single criminal court judge would mean a $715,242 savings, more than half of which is covered by the city, with the state paying for the rest. Overall, about $14 million a year could be saved by cutting the 25 judges.

Such findings echo earlier assessments by New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office and a city-hired consultant, but their conclusions have been derided by local judges as “flawed” and “short-sighted.”

Murray did not return a call for comment Thursday.

If the state commission concludes that the local judicial system is bloated, the report urges the Legislature to take action in 2014, before the elections in which 80 percent of the judgeships are up for election. Otherwise, any potential reform would be delayed until 2020.

So far, according to BGR’s report Thursday, the state commission hasn’t committed to making any recommendations at all on reducing judgeships.

“Clearly, any study of the efficient use of judicial resources should examine whether courts are properly sized and recommend the elimination of any excess judgeships,” BGR said.

“However, the committee has not publicly stated whether it intends to make such recommendations. It should.”

The average cost of a judgeship in New Orleans is $570,000 a year, according to BGR.

“With the exception of one public hearing, the committee has been meeting behind closed doors,” BGR said.

“The precise scope of its work, the process it is using and the standards that it is applying are unclear. If current practices continue, the public will not have access to the committee’s deliberations and records. This will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to hold the committee accountable and assess the quality of its work.”