Nineteenth Judicial District Court Commissioner John Smart found himself in the media spotlight Sept. 28 when he was enlisted to announce what actions a grand jury had taken against LSU football players Jordan Jefferson and Joshua Johns in an alleged brawl outside a local bar.
Smart and fellow 19th JDC Commissioner Rachel Morgan are accustomed to performing the bulk of their work behind the scenes and with little or no fanfare.
So it would have been understandable if Smart, a commissioner since 2002, had tripped up that evening in the courtroom of 19th JDC Judge Bonnie Jackson, the duty judge for whom he was filling in.
But Smart handled the moment, and media glare, with ease.
“I really wasn’t surprised to see so much media,’’ Smart conceded recently. “I wanted to be real deliberate and take my time’’ reading the grand jury returns.
Time is something Smart and Morgan, a commissioner since 1996, wish was in more abundant supply.
“You have to be a workaholic,’’ Morgan acknowledged.
“You have to keep the train rolling,’’ Smart said of the judicial process.
The post of commissioner in East Baton Rouge Parish was originally created by the Legislature to handle the numerous prisoner lawsuits filed annually against the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections. All such suits are filed in the 19th JDC.
“It does take a tremendous load off the judges to have us hear these prisoner suits,’’ said Smart, who replaced Allen J. Bergeron Jr., who was a 19th JDC commissioner for more than 20 years. He died in 2010.
Morgan replaced Kay Bates, who is now a 19th JDC judge.
Commissioners make recommendations to judges. They cannot accept guilty pleas or sentence defendants or otherwise make what is known in the law as a final adjudication.
“That’s why they call us commissioners, to distinguish us from judges,’’ Morgan explained, noting that judges are elected and the 19th JDC commissioners are appointed by the court.
Morgan, who practiced law in 1975-82 before working in 1982-96 as a 19th JDC law clerk, said she and Smart handle 800 to 1,000 prisoner suits between them each year.
But that’s not all.
“Our duties have increased,’’ Morgan said. “We do have a lot to do, but in this day and age the court has a lot to do.’’
Morgan and Smart annually handle 1,500 to 1,800 executory process — or foreclosure — suits; 30 to 50 applications for post-conviction relief, with the exception of first-degree murder cases; and 150 uncontested criminal expungement applications.
“That’s the most time-consuming — post-convictions,’’ Morgan said.
“There have been a lot of foreclosures in the last few years,’’ Smart added.
The commissioners also sit ad hoc for criminal court judges when asked to do so. They also sign search warrants, arrest warrants, subpoenas, and seizure orders for foreclosures through executory process.
And, of course, commissioners take indictment returns.
Morgan and Smart also handle “call-out’’ — another term for an initial appearance — for newly arrested prisoners via video hookup from East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. At call-out, prisoners are advised of their right to an attorney. Commissioners also set bonds at call-out.
Morgan noted she handled the call-out for now-condemned south Louisiana serial killer Derrick Todd Lee.
Morgan said she and Smart also have benefited in recent years from video hookups in state prisons, which allow the commissioners to conduct hearings in prisoner suits without having the prisoners transported to the 19th JDC or the commissioners driving to the prisons.
“The transportation cost was huge,’’ she said. “They had to bring two guards with every inmate.’’
“Technology has really saved us a lot of time and a lot of money,’’ Smart said.
Morgan and Smart also have had a front-row seat to some disturbing trends.
Morgan said she is seeing more and more 17-year-olds coming to court for the first time on armed robbery charges, which typically carry bonds of $50,000 to $75,000 and prison time ranging from 10 years to 99 years upon conviction.
“Ninety-nine years?’’ Morgan said she often hears from teen defendants when she advises them of the maximum prison time that armed robbery can carry.
Smart said he has noticed an increase in female defendants coming to the 19th Judicial District Courthouse.
Despite their heavy workload, Morgan and Smart said they find rewards in their jobs.
“The most rewarding thing is to amicably resolve an issue,’’ Morgan said, noting that she takes pleasure when all parties understand the recommendation she makes.
Smart said he enjoys being part of such a vital system.
“Participating in the court, and trying to move the judicial process along,’’ he said.
Louisiana Supreme Court spokeswoman Valerie Willard said there are 11 commissioners statewide: four in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, three in the 24th JDC (Jefferson Parish), two in the 19th JDC, and one each in the 15th JDC (Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes) and 22nd JDC (St. Tammany and Washington parishes).