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Case reminds to pare constables, justices

With the West Bank’s dynamic duo now officially in disgrace, maybe legislators will wake up and reform Louisiana’s small claims court system.

Last week, a court found former Jefferson Parish Second District Justice of the Peace Patrick DeJean guilty of charges related to abusing his office. JPs provide numerous administrative functions in addition to adjudicating cases with minor amounts in controversy, for which they may receive fees. These convictions automatically cost him his position.

Whatever legitimate business DeJean had didn’t seem adequate for a gambling habit he had picked up, thus his crimes of overcharging revenues and falsely inflating expenses (Jefferson Parish, as do others throughout the state, supplement in various ways JPs and their office, although not legally required to do so). While not connected to those felonies, he had a partner in running up business, former Constable Tony Thomassie.

In the last few years of Thomassie’s three-decade lock on his office (both positions require elections), DeJean shoveled plenty of work Thomassie’s way; the constable carries out many orders of that court and potentially from others, also for a fee.

The problem in Thomassie’s case was he engaged in extralegal ways of raising even more funds for his post and what legal fees he collected largely appeared to come from services he never rendered. This lead to his defeat at the polls, a subsequent ethics violation, and conviction for a minor offense.

Authorities might have grasped earlier what went on had they looked at the simplistic financial statements required annually by all JPs and constables. Even in urban areas these offices typically don’t take in more than a couple thousand dollars a month, but DeJean and Thommassie for years reported annual six-figure revenues and expenditures and DeJean didn’t properly account of all of his court’s expenses for at least one year.

Of course, somebody has to vet these documents and state government’s Ethics Administration simply doesn’t have the budget to do that. For many public officials media, special interests, and campaigners for those offices will engage in that review, but with these two kinds of offices so out-of-the-way nobody (except the odd blogger here and there) really has incentive to do so unless the officials in question make spectacles of themselves.

Thomassie’s ability to conduct business and hang around watering holes simultaneously and DeJean’s casino trips and family feud (over a succession) did just that, but it makes one wonder what goes on below the radar with corrupt but clever officials who creatively navigate around the comically-simple reporting requirements. Even if operating entirely legally, statute allows very broad defining of constable role in particular that may promote wasteful governance (in fact, constables, and any appointed deputies as permitted in a few parishes, have many similar law enforcement powers as regular sworn officers but needn’t have any of the same training).

Constables’ functions entirely duplicate those of sheriff’s deputies and likely would be performed (if needed performing; many constables report hardly any business at all) at less cost to taxpayers by the sheriff’s department. In turn, this would reduce revenues coming to the JPS but also their administrative costs and duties.

No jurisdiction really needs constables so Louisiana should abolish these, although perhaps large populated jurisdictions could justify them. Nor does the volume of business require so many JPs, so the state should pursue large consolidations within parishes of these courts (the few parishes with parish courts really wouldn’t need any).

Naturally, these officials will resist their near-extinctions, and they likely have enough political clout to prevent an optimal degree of implementation of this idea. If so, then it may take more than one West Bank-scandal to overcome that regrettable inertia.

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