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Political courage needed to reduce superfluous judgeships

The Louisiana judiciary went into full bunker job protection mode at the latest meeting of the body that advises on judicial policy, to the detriment of the citizenry.

The Judicial Council of the Supreme Court was nonplussed, to say the least, at a report issued last month by the New Orleans-based Bureau of Government Research that determined the state’s judiciary as a whole, but particularly in New Orleans, was overstaffed. The Council, which has a majority of judges sitting on it with the remainder of the 17 members from the legal community save a lone citizen representative, spent considerable meeting time criticizing the report.

Perhaps what really irritated them was in its calculations the BGR used the Council’s own data and formula for deriving the ideal workload in demonstrating at the statewide level (using only the ten largest districts) there were about a quarter more judges than needed (excluding Orleans) and in New Orleans a stunning double-and-a-quarter times needed. This led during the meeting to a series of attacks on the study’s methodology, the irony being the Council ended up criticizing its own methodology. It even led to one member to ask for redoing the formula – precisely a recommendation in the BGR report which noted that many states followed the National Center for State Courts' that used 25 base types instead of nine and to use time studies rather than raw time amounts.

Making the objections seem even sillier was that BGR compared similar courts within the state to show in particular the glaring inefficiencies of the Orleans versions. Most of the argumentation against the report’s conclusions came on the basis that the methodology wasn’t good enough to capture the nuances, but there’s no reason to expect that the “nuances” such as they are differ, for example, between Caddo Parish’s First District Family Court and juvenile courts in Orleans, which were calculated to have a caseload for a single judge yet has six spots, or twice as many as Caddo’s with comparable workloads.

But the winner of the most laughable defense of the bloated judiciary came from member Kim Boyle, an attorney in real life, who claimed the numbers underestimated demand for court services even after the large population decline as a result of the hurricane disasters of 2005 because it didn’t take into account tourists. Let’s see, to make up for the population being down approaching 100,000, or let’s say equivalent to 30 million person-days in Orleans per year, and let’s say the typical tourist stays three days, that means 10 million more tourists a year are hitting New Orleans every year than in 2005 just to stay even – which is more than the entire amount estimated to visit in 2012? With this example of clarity in thinking, you would hire this woman to represent you in court?

However, there’s no surprise that the legal community would circle the wagons so. Unless you place a large degree of value on making as much money as possible, securing a judgeship is the major prize for a lawyer in Louisiana. The pay is way more than adequate (most make in neighborhood of the governor’s salary and some much more), you largely set your own hours, and for almost all it’s a job for life (although the 70 retirement age does cap that); even though they are elected positions, almost none ever lose a reelection bid and most at the lower levels can look forward to little if any competition in any of the their reelection bids. Throw in the fact that you wield considerable power, and it’s little wonder that when a seat comes open there is stiff, expensive competition for it. And, having fewer of them also would increase their workloads from the below- to extremely below-average levels many in Louisiana now enjoy.

Thus, sitting judges have every incentive to want to have as many spots open as possible for the rest of their profession, if not more specifically to have spots available for friends and allies. Legislators and other policy-makers think the same way, for many of the many lawyers among them would like to parachute into a cushy judgeship after their elective careers are over/term-limited. Further, informally and indirectly, judges and office in other parts of the judicial system hold enough power among electoral elites that their behind-the-scenes support is coveted for campaigns for other branches and levels of government, so it takes a brave majoritarian-branch politician with integrity to buck the judicial system’s desire to have as many judgeships as possible – never mind the additional (using Orleans as an example) $570,000 annually each at the local level costs to taxpayers and litigants.

For any reduction, the Legislature would have to deal with it this upcoming session because judicial offices can’t be eliminated before their terms end and the bulk of them statewide are having elections in 2014. The official line coming from many legislators, as articulated by state Sen. Edwin Murray last session when dealing with and successfully derailing state Rep. Helena Moreno’s HB 607 that would have lopped off a pair of juvenile bench spots in Orleans, is to wait on a report by the Council about this and other matters the Legislature mandated to have available by Feb. 15, 2014 before doing anything.

Yet Murray, who heads up the report production on behalf of the Supreme Court, only has reported information on the three parishes with their own courts. A report dealing with the five courts of appeal is now almost two years late, and this instills little confidence that reports on the more than 40 district courts and dozens of city courts will be completed in four months.

Whether this is a deliberate stalling strategy to manufacture a sitzkrieg giving cover to waiting six more years for the enacting of any changes, the public should demand and the Legislature should follow that something be done to reduce judgeships this next session, report or not. Even if BGR was off by 50 percent in making a valid workload assessment, that still means New Orleans has 50 percent more judges than can be justified. Lawmakers need not let the legal community pressure them away from saving the state money by shedding superfluous judgeships before the 2015 term starts for judges.

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