Local watchdog group The Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) released a report Sept. 3 saying Orleans Parish has up to 25 surplus judges, costing taxpayers $14 million a year. "The parish's seven courts need 20 judges, or less than half of the 45 they currently have," the BGR report concludes. "Six of the courts have more than twice as many judges as they need."
Caseloads also have dwindled, according to BGR. Civil District Court, Juvenile Court, First City Court and Second City Court filings dropped by 55 to 88 percent since peaking in the 1980s.
Juvenile Court case filings have steadily decreased since the mid-1990s from 8,000 a year to less than 2,000 in 2012. Civil District Court had nearly 30,000 filings at its peak in the late 1980s but has decreased to fewer than 15,000 filings in 2012. At Criminal District Court, filings plummeted to less than 5,000 in 2012. There were more than 10,000 filings in 2009 — but many misdemeanor cases formerly filed at Criminal Court are now prosecuted in Municipal Court.
Despite the increased workload in the form of additional misdemeanor cases, Municipal Court filings steadily dropped from nearly 90,000 in 2004 to less than 40,000 in 2012. Traffic court filings dropped by half since 2002, when they hit a 30-year peak of nearly 300,000 cases, according to BGR.
The 36-page report recommends eliminating five (of six) judges in Juvenile Court, three (of four) judges in Traffic Court, and essentially halving the rest: losing six judges in Criminal District Court and seven judges in Traffic Court. The report did not suggest eliminating any of the four Municipal Court judgeships.
Each surplus judgeship costs the public $570,000 a year, according to the BGR.
The BGR study drew a measured response from the judiciary. Chief Justice Bernette Johnson issued a statement taking note of the study and adding that the court is waiting for the final report of a legislatively created panel that is looking at the total number of judges statewide, not just in New Orleans, and at all levels of the judiciary — from district courts to justices of the peace to appellate courts.
Known as "the 143 Committee" (it was created by House Concurrent Resolution 143 several years ago), the panel cited by Johnson is chaired by state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans. "The 143 Committee is made up of a diverse group of legislators from both the house and the senate, judges from different levels of court, representatives from the private bar, and citizens from the community," Johnson said in her statement. "The committee has been meeting diligently for two years and is scheduled to complete its work by February 2014."
Before issuing its final report, the 143 Committee will hold a public hearing at the state Capitol in October to receive input from the public. "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," Johnson's statement concluded. "We believe it is important to allow the 143 Committee to finish its work." — ALEX WOODWARD & CLANCY DuBOS