A Louisiana House committee sided with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Wednesday in a simmering dispute over the number of juvenile court judges needed in a city downsized by Hurricane Katrina.
At issue is House Bill 607, which would abolish two of six judgeships in the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court. One judgeship would disappear after 2014 with the retirement of Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Lagarde.
The other judgeship would be abolished after the death, resignation, retirement or removal of a judge.
The House Committee on Judiciary voted 12-3 in favor of advancing HB607, despite family ties and judges’ arguments that New Orleans’ population levels soon will justify the need for a six-judge court. The committee’s chairman, state Rep. Jeff Arnold, is Lagarde’s nephew.
Arnold, D-New Orleans, voted against the bill.
HB607 is one of Landrieu’s priorities for the current legislative session. A new juvenile courthouse only will have four courtrooms.
The mayor said in April that the current caseload does not warrant six judges. He said the court probably only needs three judges.
Lagarde told the House Committee on the Judiciary on Wednesday that Landrieu and his chief administrative officer, Andy Kopplin, are playing games with funding to win their argument for a reduced court.
“(The mayor’s) funding it as he sees fit. When Mr. Kopplin can send us an email (saying) ‘We will fund a clerk of court if you work with us toward cutbacks,’ there’s something wrong there,” Lagarde complained.
Landrieu caught the judiciary by surprise when he made the case for a smaller juvenile court during a ground-breaking ceremony earlier this year.
The Louisiana Supreme Court’s Judicial Counsel suggested in 2007 that New Orleans’ juvenile court had too many judges. A juvenile court judge’s salary is $137,743, not including benefits.
“We’ve been discussing this for quite some time. The fiscally responsible thing to do is to eliminate judgeships,” state Rep. Helena Moreno said Wednesday. The New Orleans Democrat sponsored the legislation.
Lagarde told the committee that the proposal is premature. He said a study committee headed by state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, will look at how many district court judges are needed. “We don’t have to do something now,” he said.
Lagarde said caseloads may be down but judges now have more time to focus on juveniles, including neglected and abused children. He said he also handles child support and traffic cases when the citations involve children. Instead of reviewing cases every six months, they are now reviewed every two to three months, he said.
“The city’s trying to compare apples and apples, but they’re not doing that. They’re comparing apples and artichokes,” Lagarde said.
State Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Meraux, asked if four judges could sufficiently handle the current caseload.
“We’re faced with a budget crisis. The city of New Orleans is faced with a budget crisis. I’m trying to get to the nuts and bolts. Can four judges handle the caseload of six judges?” Garofalo said.
Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Ernestine Gray said she could not answer his question. She also declined to describe her colleagues’ work hours, saying judges do not keep time sheets. “But you’re the chief judge,” Garofalo told her. “I would’ve hoped that you would have brought some information that shows us this is incorrect, and I’m not hearing it.”
Gray suggested he look at court dockets to determine the number of cases each judge handles.
State Rep. Sherman Q. Mack, R-Albany, told the judges that HB607 is a compromise.
He said a study recommended one judge, the mayor suggested three and the bill recommends four judges.
In the vote on the legislation, Arnold said he objected to the bill’s advancement because the study commission’s work is not complete and the proposal seems rushed.
Voting FOR reducing juvenile court judges (12): State Reps. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, Randal L. Gaines, D-LaPlace, Ray Garofalo, R-Meraux, Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, Patrick O. Jefferson, D-Arcadia, Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, Chris Leopold, R-Port Sulphur, Sherman Q. Mack, R-Albany, Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston, and Ledricka Thierry, D-Opelousas.
Voting AGAINST HB607 (3): State Reps. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, and John Bel Edwards, D-Amite.