N.O. judges take case against cutting the bench to City Hall

These days it’s the judges on trial in New Orleans, and they have taken up their own defense as if their jobs depend on it.

That’s at least in part, of course, because their jobs may in fact depend on it. The Mayor’s Office, the city’s inspector general and the Bureau of Governmental Research have all piled on, suggesting — with varying degrees of certainty — the city has too many judges.

And with a deadline looming for the state Legislature to either eliminate some judgeships in the parish or wait until 2020 to take up the issue again, the debate has kicked into high gear.

On Wednesday, the judges defended themselves before the Governmental Affairs Committee of the City Council, just a day after pleading their case at the state’s Judiciary Council, the research arm of the state Supreme Court.

Just as they had Tuesday, the judges picked apart a recent report from the Bureau of Governmental Research suggesting the city might be able to shed more than half of its judges and save as much as $14 million in the process.

“It appears that this analysis attempts to put a price on justice,” said Judge Joseph Landry, of Municipal Court, one of more than half a dozen judges who took turns questioning the bureau’s methodology, accuracy and wisdom. “I cannot do that, and I hope this council and this city never attempt to put a price on justice or the defense of constitutional rights because we will fail as a community and a city and a state, if not a country.”

Janet Howard, the Bureau of Governmental Research’s president, looked on exasperated for the second day in a row.

Howard acknowledged there are flaws in the formula used to assess how many judges the city needs, a formula borrowed from the Judiciary Council. But she pointed out that the bureau has not advocated cutting a specific number of judgeships.

The group has only urged the Judiciary Council to complete followup interviews and observations in order to make a more accurate recommendation before the next legislative session in Baton Rouge. Most of the city’s 45 judges will be up for re-election next year, locking them into six-year terms.

“In short, we agree with the judges that the decision as to the appropriate number of judges should be made by the Judiciary Council based on further investigation,” Howard said. “However, we remain concerned about whether the council is committed to doing so in a timely fashion.”

None of that satisfied the judges. Howard’s disclaimers notwithstanding, they argued that the Judiciary Council’s formula doesn’t properly weight the number of hours that go into different types of cases and warned that understaffing the city’s courthouses could delay justice for victims and the accused alike.

“The BGR report admits the inherent weaknesses of using the formula exclusively,” said Criminal District Court Judge Camille Buras, “but looks no further than the formula to assert its conclusions.”

Council members, who don’t control the number of judges but do have to grapple with how to balance the city’s budget, seemed more inclined to agree with the Bureau of Governmental Research.

Susan Guidry, who chaired the meeting, has already said that she would like to see the Legislature consolidate some of the city’s courts to save money.

Councilwoman Stacy Head cited case studies that show the poor often end up paying for excess judges, since it is poor residents who most often interact with the courts and have to pay fees that have been hiked to cover operating costs.

“It’s not just the financial cost to us as taxpayers,” Head argued, “it’s even more so a human rights issue for the least able to fight against a system they cannot afford.”

Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer sounded more sympathetic toward the judges, agreeing that the discussion ought to be couched more in terms of how to wring efficiencies out of the judicial system rather than simply whether some jobs need to be cut.

But even Palmer seemed to lose patience as the judges continued on at length about the need to fund the courts sufficiently.

“It gets very frustrating with everyone saying, ‘You’ve got to give us more resources, we’re not being funded adequately,’ ” Palmer said, noting some of the myriad other priorities that also eat up the city’s budget, like street repairs and blight reduction.

“I share all of y’all’s frustration, so help us solve it and let’s look at where we can reallocate funding in a smart way that has a better payoff.”