Court clerk riles mayor, DA with evidence room closures

Advocate staff photo by JOHN MCCUSKER -- Arthur Morrell makes notes during a meeting of the Criminal Justice Committee of the City Council on July 10, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN MCCUSKER -- Arthur Morrell makes notes during a meeting of the Criminal Justice Committee of the City Council on July 10, 2013.

Evidence room to be shut down twice a week

Complaining of more staff losses at a shrinking office that he says the city has refused to fully fund, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Clerk Arthur Morrell announced Friday that he is shutting down the court’s evidence room two days a week.

The reduction, which Morrell said began this week, means prosecutors will not be able to retrieve evidence for trials or hearings on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Morrell acknowledged that prosecutors could be forced to stash critical evidence on their own to avoid embarrassing court delays.

The move, which Morrell said was “unavoidable” and would run indefinitely, riled District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.

“It will affect the pace of the entire criminal justice system. It will impede our ability to prosecute cases if we can’t get evidence to the courtroom,” said Christopher Bowman, spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office. “The DA expects the evidence room to be open five days a week, period.”

But that’s not Morrell’s plan with his latest move in an ongoing battle with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration over city funding for his office.

In December, Morrell scored a victory in the legal face-off over just what state law requires the city to pay for at the clerk’s office. Following an appeals court ruling, Civil District Judge Sidney Cates IV ruled that the city must fully fund Morrell’s full staff, and he barred the city from holding back money appropriated for the office for 2012.

Cates based his decision on a 2013 state law that prohibits the city from cutting the clerk’s budget for salaries and other expenses without the Legislature’s blessing. The new law elaborated on one that was already in effect.

Landrieu petitioned Cates in January to suspend the decision pending an appeal that the city has yet to argue.

Morrell’s attorney, Madro Bandaries, called the request a delaying tactic.

Morrell said he has spoken to Cannizzaro and suggested the district attorney take up his concerns with City Hall.

“Yeah, the DA’s got problems. I told him, ‘You do what you need to do. Talk to the mayor or something. I can’t keep it open,’ ” Morrell said. “I don’t blame him in a way. (Prosecutors have) got to carry this stuff around. It might be money, might be drugs, whatever it is.”

The clerk and the city have been fighting the same battle in court and in the City Council chamber since 2012, when the city sliced his budget and Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, Andy Kopplin, refused to approve a set of replacement employees that Morrell forwarded to him.

Morrell said he was forced to shutter the evidence room as a result of still more attrition at an office that has 14 fewer positions than the 90.5 that he says he needs. Morrell said the recent departure of two more employees, plus the fact two other workers are on extended sick leave, has left him scrambling to staff the courtrooms at Tulane and Broad.

Morrell said he didn’t bother to alert Kopplin to the new vacancies on his staff, saying, “All he does is ignore them.”

He said the basement evidence room will remain open for police to bring in evidence but that he won’t have staff on Tuesdays and Thursdays to transport items to the 13 courtrooms upstairs.

Kopplin fired back in a written statement.

“The Clerk’s Office has repeatedly demonstrated that its staffing pattern is inefficient. The city has offered to help the clerk identify ways to save money and cut costs on several occasions, and he has rejected those offers repeatedly,” Kopplin said. “Taxpayers deserve access to their government, and the clerk’s decision today will limit key services.”

Indeed, last year, Morrell brushed back an effort by the city to bring in efficiency experts to assess the office’s operations. Morrell has argued, and the courts so far have agreed, that he is subject only to state law, not the city’s budgetary demands.

According to the city, Morrell has overspent his personnel budget every year since Landrieu took office in 2010. The city has not added staff to the payroll because of Morrell’s refusal to reduce costs, according to the city.

Morrell disputed that he has overspent. So far this year, he said, he is spending far less than even the reduced, $3.7 million budget that the city has allowed him. He had requested $4.1 million, he said.

Bandaries said he met Friday with Morrell to discuss their next move, which could include a legal push to force the city to approve adding more staff at the clerk’s office.

“The city has disobeyed at least the spirit of the ruling, if not the ruling itself,” Bandaries said.

Last year, Morrell took the same measure, cutting access to the evidence room by two days to cross-train his workers to do both evidence and courtroom functions. But that move lasted only a few weeks, he said.

Morrell, who won re-election in February with the highest vote total in the city, took fire last July when he sent out a news release saying he was shuttering Judge Laurie White’s courtroom for lack of staff.

White balked, and Morrell the next day blamed a bad news release for the kerfuffle.

“I don’t have the authority to shut down the court,” Morrell said then. “That’s serious.”