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More reason emerges to alter or abolish JP system

Maybe I should rename this blog from “Between the Lines” to a phrase out of the James Bond ouevreTomorrow’s News Today.” Because that’s what it suggested around two-and-a-half years ago concerning shenanigans going on within the justice of the peace system in Louisiana.

That piece focused mainly on the activities of Tony Thomassie, former constable for the Jefferson Parish Second Justice Court, who for nearly 30 years racked up enormous fees for apparently doing not a lot of work. But the way the system works, where a constable serves a justice of the peace – Louisiana’s small claims court – a JP has to sign orders and make judgments to generate revenue-raising opportunities for constables, although some parishes like Jefferson additionally pay their JPs and constables a set salary.

In the last years of Thomassie’s reign, who in 2014 was voted out of office after reports of his high take-home pay and frequent sighting in bars in and around Marrero surfaced, Patrick DeJean held the JP office in that district. The two tangoed to produce regularly six-figure-plus annual revenues, even as other districts in urban areas, some with much larger populations, came in with revenues only a fraction of that size.

The post perused the extraordinarily simple audits required for annual filing from these offices that told little about the exact nature and disposition of the revenues. Specifically concerning 2012:

… the nearly $69,000 in fees … one wonders where a constable could make that kind of money on the fee schedule above (for example, that’s the equivalent of attempting to serve – they don’t actually have to succeed – 6,900 subpoenas or one less than every two minutes working 2,000 hours a year). It’s not like JPs actually get a lot of business, as defined in R.S. 13:2586. They have limited jurisdiction and all concurrent with district courts, although parishes may broaden it to include some other matters that could significantly increase their duties, except that these are not supposed to be, unlike district courts, full-time positions. Yet somehow this court, that of Justice of the Peace Patrick DeJean, in 2012 collected over $137,000, half of which was paid out to Thomassie. (DeJean paid himself, including his $21,700 salary set by the parish, $35,000, but oddly did not account for the remaining amount, after expenses, of $48,820, which if not paid out to him should have gone into a fund….) (emphasis not in the original)

Now perhaps we know why. Recently, the state’s Judiciary Commission, in charge of disciplinary matters over any judicial officer in the state, suspended DeJean, who has engaged in a legal battle to prevent releasing of an in-depth audit performed by the Legislative Auditor on Thomassie’s activities, over alleged unauthorized loans to himself apparently for gambling purposes. It is entirely possible that the money unaccounted for on the 2012 report was part of that, as the Commission reported these activities occurred from 2011 through 2013. DeJean has launched a spirited defense, claiming the $217,000 in dispute really represents sloppy bookkeeping.

This episode adds merely another stanza to the tune delivered in that previous post – statute leaves these part-time offices highly unregulated, where officials can milk enough out of such positions not only to make what constitutionally are part-time into full-time jobs, but lucrative ones at that. Worse, it seems what little regulation exists allows way too much leeway to engage in corrupt activities, even if the simple annual reports that typically never are reviewed may have acted as a canary in a coal mine in this instance.

And this doesn’t represent the only potential flaw with these offices. Taking DeJean at his word, these seemingly offer plenty of opportunity for fiscal mismanagement, also as illustrated in a case from Caddo Parish that additionally shows the temptation of political aggrandizement.

At the very least, since some jurisdictions seem willing and able to run large sums through their offices, much more detailed reporting should occur when the annual amount reaches some threshold, such as $10,000. More effectively, the whole small claims system should come under scrutiny, beginning with whether it should exist in the first place. Should afterwards any investigation conclude with a legitimate case to retain it, it will need the Legislature to mandate much greater definition to prevent under-the-radar freelancing that at present may occur.

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