Our Views: Make panel’s work public

The public can’t have confidence in its justice system if officials deny citizens a clear view of how those courts operate.

That’s why taxpayers should demand transparency about the work of a committee formed by the Louisiana Supreme Court to reassess the number of judgeships across the state.

Unfortunately, the committee is shutting out the public from its proceedings. Members of the public have not been allowed to attend committee meetings, and officials have also refused to make the committee’s records public. That’s a slap in the face to taxpayers who fund the courts, and it threatens to diminish public support for the justice system. The ideal of law and order must inevitably suffer when officials resort to secrecy in considering how Louisiana’s justice system conducts its business.

We’re disappointed, but not surprised, that officials have chosen to keep the public at arm’s length while a committee formed at the request of the Legislature sorts out the politically sensitive question of whether some areas of the state have too many judges. This is a hot-button issue that’s already raised the hackles of those with a vested interest in the status quo, but the best way to address controversial matters of public policy is through open debate, not secretive discussions.

The Bureau of Governmental Research, a New Orleans-based government watchdog group, essentially advanced this argument recently in filing suit to make the work of the committee public.

Previous reports released by the Supreme Court’s Judicial Council indicate that some judicial districts, including Orleans Parish, have more judges than they need. That kind of inefficiency needlessly burdens taxpayers. In Orleans Parish, the average cost of a judgeship is $570,000 a year, or $3.4 million over a six-year term, according to BGR.

Attorneys acting on behalf of the committee have used specious legal reasoning to defend the shrouding of the committee’s work. We hope that BGR’s suit is handled quickly by the courts, and that the watchdog group succeeds.

But beyond the legal arguments in this case, a clear moral imperative should prevail:

Courts should answer to the people, not political expedience. We urge officials to make this committee’s proceedings and records public now.